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Tampa church evicts Scout troop over decision on gays

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Published:   |   Updated: August 29, 2013 at 06:40 AM

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TAMPA — Troop 4 in Tampa has been a mainstay in scouting circles for nearly a century, teaching youth everything from archery to outdoor skills to character-building.

Now its leaders are looking for a new home.

The Holy Trinity Presbyterian Church, located at the foot of the Davis Islands bridge, told Boy Scout Troop 4 leaders this week it would not be renewing its sponsorship because of the national organization’s decision not to ban openly gay Scouts.

In May, Boy Scout delegates met in Grapevine, Texas, and by a 61 percent margin of 1,400 voters approved the proposal. The delegation, however, stopped short of allowing gay adults to supervise the youths.

Brian T. FitzGerald, former scoutmaster for Troop 4, is heading up a search committee to find a new home. He said there are about 120 boys in the Boy Scout troop and Cub Scout pack who are being displaced come Dec. 31.

“At this point,” he said, “we have to find a new sponsor, a new chartering organization and we are in the process of doing that.”

The troop has been in existence since 1916 and counts itself among the oldest in Tampa, if not the state. FitzGerald said the troop has had a continuous charter at the church for the past 60 years, long before Holy Trinity Presbyterian moved in about four years ago. Prior to that, he said, the church building belonged to the First Christian Church.

Most of the youths are from Hyde Park and Davis Islands, he said. The rest come from different areas of South Tampa.

“We were not totally surprised by this,” FitzGerald said. Over the summer, “We were told that the church was considering this action.”

The church notified the troop by letter, which said, in part: “The BSA in changing its policy about sexual orientation has jettisoned the God-breathed Scriptures as the proper standard by which ethical matters, generally and sexual ethics specifically, are to be settled.

“Again,” the letter said, “we underscore our grief at the decisions made by the BSA which have led to this point.”

Reached late Wednesday, Church Pastor Steve Casselli declined a phone interview but said he would consent to an in-person interview later.

The search for a new sponsor began immediately after the troop was told about the church’s decision, FitzGerald said. That was Monday.

“I think we’ll find another place,” he said, “whether it will be a church or a social organization ... We have a number of options open to us. We do intend to continue as Boy Scout Troop 4. We are too old, too strong, too large to fold.”

Across the region, a few sponsors have opted out since the May decision, but most have stayed the course, said George McGovern, CEO of the Gulf Ridge Council, which encompasses troops in eight West Central Florida counties, including Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk.

Ninety-seven percent of the charter organizations have remained sponsors, he said in a recent interview, adding that more than 400 troops are in those eight counties.

“We have heard from both those who support the amended policy and those who would have preferred it would not have changed,” he said. The majority have continued to support the troops, “and focus on getting back to the business of mentoring young people to grow and develop into great citizens and community leaders.”

He said those sponsors that have expressed concerns about the new policy are being talked to individually.

“It’s been positive,” McGovern said in the interview. “Everybody is focusing on the boys and that’s the most important thing.”

The Gulf Ridge Council serves more than 24,300 youth in 216 Cub Scout packs, 186 Boy Scout troops, 69 Venturing Crews and 52 Learning for Life units. The council stretches from Citrus County to Hardee and Highlands counties.

Among the sponsors is the Catholic Church, which has yet to pull any charters, said Frank Murphy, spokesman for the Diocese of St. Petersburg.

The diocese, which sponsors nearly 30 local troops, is awaiting direction from an upcoming meeting of the National Conference of Bishops this fall, so no changes in sponsorships have taken place yet, Murphy said.

The Bishops will meet in Baltimore in November.

“We’re not even sure they will discuss it,” Murphy said. “It has to be raised by a bishop at the meeting and they haven’t published an agenda yet.”

Murphy doesn’t expect any changes in Catholic churches sponsoring Scout troops.

“I think that at this point our policy will not change,” he said. “We are very slow to judge other people. We accept them the way we are. The best policy, the best way to approach it is to allow everybody to participate.”

Across the scouting landscape of West Central Florida, there have been some concerns.

The Oakwood Baptist Church in Brandon sponsors the 100-plus member Troop 655. Rev. Jason Spotz, the pastor of the church, said the church will continue to sponsor the troop, but he reserves the right to counsel gay scouts, saying the homosexual lifestyle is sinful.

But for now, the troop has a home and a sponsor with the Oakwood Baptist, he said.

“It all hinges on if Scout leaders in the troop are willing to stand with the church,” he said. “And it depends on the Scouts. If you can’t point out sin in somebody’s life, that means you have to accept sin, and I can’t say I’m in agreement with that.”

The church’s stance has not been challenged by anyone, he said, so far.

“Nothing’s come up like that,” Spotz said. “Nobody’s complained or said anything.”

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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