NORTH RICHLAND HILLS, Texas — Chatting in the living room one night, Ron Orr gave his 15-year-old son Andrew a choice: He could stick with the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and his mission to become an Eagle Scout, or he could join Trail Life USA — the new Christian-based alternative that excludes openly gay boys.
This was no small decision. Four generations of Orr men had been Eagles, including Ron, and Andrew’s older brother. Andrew had spent years working toward Scouting’s highest rank, and was just months from reaching it.
But the Boy Scouts had decided to admit gays, and Ron Orr, a tall, soft-spoken man with a firm handshake, is clear about his faith and what it says about homosexuality: It is a sin that cannot be tolerated.
His son agreed. He would forgo the century-old BSA for Trail Life, which officially launched just in January.
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“It felt like I’d be hitting something higher than Eagle in terms of achievement,” Andrew said.
So Orr and his son left BSA and set out with other families to build a new organization based on what they believe to be Christian values. Orr is a regional organizer who speaks to churches and groups about Trail Life. His son now aspires to achieve a Freedom Award, the new group’s highest rank.
The Orrs and others in Trail Life say they are fighting for the traditional values of Christianity and of Scouting, which includes a command in the Scout Oath to be “morally straight” — even as a changing America grows more accepting of gays and gay marriage. They are leaving an organization central to many of their upbringings with heavy hearts, but also with the belief that the Scouting they knew no longer exists.
“As Christians from a scriptural basis, we love all folks, but the Scripture is very clear that being homosexual is a sin,” Ron Orr said. “We’ve got to be able to hold a strong line and set a consistent example for our young men.”
Trail Life has established units in more than 40 states, mostly from Boy Scouts and parents who feel their old organization has lost its way. It has about 600 units up and running or in the process of registration, Executive Director Rob Green said. As many as half of those who have expressed interest were not affiliated with the Boy Scouts beforehand, Green said.
It is still a tiny movement compared to Scouting, which has nearly 2.5 million youth members and remains a powerful force in American life, even with a 6 percent drop in membership last year.
Trail Life promotes itself on its website as the “premier national character development organization for young men which produces Godly and responsible husbands, fathers and citizens.”
Its official membership standards policy welcomes all boys, but adds, “We grant membership to adults and youth who do not engage in or promote sexual immorality of any kind, or engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the program.”
For over a century, Scouting banned openly gay youth and leaders, fighting all the way to the Supreme Court to defend its right to do so. Leaders who were revealed to be gay were excluded, and some boys were denied Eagle Scout awards by regional councils that were notified of their sexual orientation.
But the Scouts eventually began to face pressure from sponsors and CEOs who serve in Scouting leadership but lead companies with anti-discrimination policies. BSA surveys also showed that youths and parents of Scouting-age children were supportive of allowing openly gay Scouts.
Scouting leadership proposed a compromise: Accept openly gay youth, but exclude gay adult volunteers. BSA’s National Council voted in May to enact it.
There are signs that the change worked. One of the gay Scouts who rallied for the change, Pascal Tessier of Maryland, has since received his Eagle award. And threats of massive departures from Scouting ranks have not materialized. Early reports suggest a small percentage of Scouts left BSA due to the policy — far less than even what Scouting leaders were led to expect by surveys conducted before the vote.
“Ultimately, Scouting voted in favor of a new policy that allows us to serve more kids,” said Deron Smith, BSA’s national spokesman, in an email. “That said, we’re pleased that the strong majority of our Scouting family remains committed to Scouting.”
But the vote also angered many people affiliated with Scouting, particularly in more conservative parts of the country. Many of them have stayed with Scouting so far. Others have sought alternatives, from Trail Life to other youth groups sponsored by churches.
“We’re trying to learn from the mistakes of the Boy Scouts,” said John Stemberger, an Orlando, Fla., lawyer who led the opposition to BSA’s May vote and went on to found Trail Life.
Stemberger accused BSA of imposing “an artificial political and social agenda” on its national membership at the expense of its rank-and-file members and churches.
“They have now allowed open and avowed presentation in your face: here and queer, that kind of blunt thing,” he said late last year. “And we don’t think that’s appropriate. We will allow boys of same-sex attraction in the program. We’re not going to allow them to facilitate and promote that.”
Threat to their values
Some of the parents who took their children out of Scouting and into Trail Life admit feeling the loss of BSA’s history and tradition.
But they say the threat to their children’s values outweighs any of that.
All of the families in Ron Orr’s Trail Life unit in North Richland Hills, Texas, belong to the home-schooling association which he leads.
On a recent winter evening, about 40 boys from the unit attended a Trail Life meeting inside a nondenominational Christian Church. All of the boys, ages 5 to 16, met together before splitting off into age and rank groups.
They wore green Trail Life T-shirts and stood in lines in front of their three youth leaders. After reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, it was time for them to raise their right hands and say the Trail Life Oath, which calls on the boys in part “to serve God and my country, to respect authority, and to be a good steward of creation.”
Most of them didn’t know all of the words yet, and the group lost steam after the first line. As the boys started to giggle and look around at each other, one of their leaders shouted, “Start over!” and helped them finish it.
They then sat down for a religious talk from their adult Trailmaster, Philip Buchholz. He told them that it was important for them to stay true to who they are.