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Tampa scout leaders take policy on gays 'day by day'


Published:   |   Updated: June 8, 2013 at 08:36 PM

TAMPA - Protesters held rallies and conservative groups vowed to quit sponsoring troops if a ban on gay scouts was lifted by the Boy Scouts of America.

Now, two weeks after the scouts' National Council voted to do just that, it's decision time in Tampa Bay for those groups still uncomfortable with allowing gay scouts in their ranks.

So far, Cub scouts are still learning Morse code, candidates for Eagle scout continue hammering away on projects, and Hillsborough teens are working together in the co-ed Venturers program.

"This has been a very polarizing situation and people have been disappointed one way or another," said George McGovern, the executive director of the Gulf Ridge Council, which oversees Boy Scout troops in West Central Florida.

"But everybody has come together. ... They have come together to put the focus back on scouting."

Still, changes appear on the horizon for some of the 592 troops in the council.

The Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, which sponsors 26 local troops, is awaiting direction from an upcoming meeting of the National Conference of Bishops this fall. A church in Pasco County has told the council it is considering ending its troop sponsorship. And a Baptist pastor in Brandon is defying the new policy, essentially daring the scouts to shut down his troop, because homosexuality is "against the word of God."

"We're taking it on a day-to-day basis," McGovern said. "A few people have said they were disappointed in the vote. One Cub master said he would be leaving, but we have hundreds of scout masters."

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The National Council's vote "took up a lot of time and effort," McGovern said, but Gulf Ridge scouts and leaders "recognize the importance of the programs and the commitment."

Boy Scout delegates met in Grapevine, Texas, on May 24 for the vote. Of the 1,400 casting ballots, 61 percent supported the proposal allowing gay youths to participate in scouting. However, gay adults still are prohibited from holding leadership positions in the Scouts. The policy changes go into effect Jan. 1.

Some leaders of local churches sponsoring Scouts said they are reviewing their own policies.

"I guess at this point, I would have to say 'no comment,'" said Rev. Steve Casselli, pastor of Holy Trinity Presbyterian Church in South Tampa. The church sponsors and hosts Boy Scout Troop 4, one of the oldest troops in Florida.

Caselli said his church had not yet discussed how to respond lifting the ban on openly gay scouts. Church leadership is arranging a meeting with the troop leaders to discuss what to do, he said.

"We have not heard from them as to what their plans are," Caselli said, "so, it's too early at this point to have any real comment. There are a lot of options."

Frank Murphy, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, said no immediate changes are planned for the 26 councils in the region the Catholic Church sponsors. Churches may include several troops, he said. "I think a discussion is planned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at their next meeting," he said. "Our bishop will listen to that," and come up with a local policy to address the sponsorship issues.

Murphy said discussions will yield some sort of policy, but what it will be is unknown at this time.

The next meeting where bishops can vote on polices will be held Nov. 11-14 in Baltimore.

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The Rev. James Harnish, senior pastor with the Hyde Park United Methodist Church in South Tampa, which sponsors Troop 22, said he isn't expecting any disruption in sponsorship.

"No, we don't anticipate making any changes," he said. "Troop 22 is one of the oldest troops in the city and we would not have any reason not to continue to be supportive of them."

Rev. Jason Spotz, the pastor at Oakwood Baptist Church in Brandon, said he will continue to sponsor Boy Scout Troop 665 on one condition.

"We will not accept gay scouts," Spotz said. "As long as the troop is willing to keep that standard, we will keep it."

Oakwood will not shut down its troop unless the Gulf Ridge or National councils decide to dissolve Troop 665 because of what Spotz calls the "morally straight stance" that his church has taken.

"It's a moral stance. You have to stick to it," Spotz said. "It's not something we take lightly. I cannot look at a boy or a woman who's living that lifestyle. It's against the word of God, bottom line."

McGovern said if any church or troop leader has an issue with the upcoming policy changes, Gulf Ridge leaders would like to schedule a meeting and meet them in person.

"Our philosophy is we go and meet face to face with the pastor or leader," McGovern said. "Let's have a conversation. So far, we've had very few of these conversations."

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Although the majority of Scout sponsors in the Gulf Ridge Council's eight-county area said they are not suspending their programs, national conservative groups have indicated they would no longer support scouting.

Following the May 24 vote, Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's executive committee, said that "homosexual behavior is incompatible with the principles enshrined in the Scout oath and Scout law."

Baptist churches sponsor Scout units serving more than 100,000 of the Boy Scout's 2.6 million youth members.

The Assemblies of God, which oversees units serving more than 2,000 Scouts, said it could no longer support such units.

The Gulf Ridge Council oversees 251 Cub scout troops, 200 Boy Scout troops, 85 Venturers groups, 24 Explorer posts and 32 character education programs, McGovern said.

Gulf Ridge has 30,000 Scouts and 5,000 adult volunteers.

McGovern said he's pleased how Gulf Ridge's scouting units have handled the impact of the vote.

"We're proud of how they've handled this situation," he said. "We want to get back to scouting. Let's get back to taking care of the kids."

Reporter Keith Morelli and information from The Associated Press contributed to this report.

rreyes@tampatrib.com

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