With the Boy Scouts of America entangled in a furor over its ban on gays, lesser-known youth organizations across the ideological spectrum see an opportunity. They wonder if the turmoil might prompt some families to give them a closer look as options for their boys.
They range from Bible-based programs run by conservative religious organizations to coed, inclusive groups, including one founded on the basis of pagan beliefs.
None of the groups has the size or iconic status of the BSA, though some have been around for many decades.
Leaders of several of the groups, in public statements and interviews with The Associated Press, made clear they are following the Boy Scouts’ predicament with interest and pondering possible ramifications for their own prospects – though not seeking to profit from “someone else’s misfortune,” as one leader said.
The BSA, founded in 1910 and now serving about 2.66 million boys, is deliberating a possible shift in its long-standing policy of excluding gays as youth members or adult leaders.
In May, the BSA’s 1,400-member National Council is expected to consider a proposal to ease the ban by allowing sponsors of local Scout units to decide for themselves whether to admit gays.
Some gay rights groups say the plan is inadequate, and that no units should be allowed to discriminate, while some conservative religious leaders and advocacy groups want the ban to stay in place nationwide.
As a result, there has been consternation on both the left and right of the Scouting community, and warnings of possible defections depending on what decision is made in May.
Already there are families seeking alternatives to the Boy Scouts, including:
– SECULAR PROGRAMS
• Camp Fire. Founded in 1910 as Camp Fire Girls of America, this organization changed its name and became coed in 1975. Boys now comprise almost half of its 300,000 youth participants, according to spokeswoman Catherine Lufkin.
While the Boy Scouts have drawn some criticism for excluding gays and atheists, Camp Fire stresses its inclusiveness and says it welcomes youth and families regardless of race, creed, gender, social status, disability or sexual orientation.
Lufkin said young people view Camp Fire’s diversity as an asset and enjoy making friends who are different from themselves.
Like the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts of the USA, and other major youth organizations, Camp Fire has seen its membership ranks decline in recent decades, though Lufkin said the numbers have stabilized in recent years.
Nonetheless, Camp Fire adopted a new logo last year and has striven to develop “rebranding” strategies to attract new participants.
“The hard truth is that the vast majority of parents and youth _ from all walks of life – know nothing about us anymore,” CEO Cathy Tisdale wrote in a newsletter last summer.
• Navigators USA. This alternative scouting organization has its roots in a Boy Scout troop based in New York City’s East Harlem neighborhood and sponsored by the Unitarian Church of All Souls.
The troop broke away from the BSA in 2003 out of disagreement with the exclusionary membership policies, and some of the volunteer leaders decided to continue independently as a coed, inclusive movement.
The group’s growth outside New York was slow at first, but founder and executive director Robin Bossert says the number of chapters has surged from 16 to 42 in the past year, with an average of about a dozen youths per unit. He attributes the growth in part to the controversies surrounding the Boy Scouts.
Bossert said Navigators USA emphasizes outdoor activities _ “to combat nature-deficit disorder” – as well as community service projects.
• The Baden-Powell Service Association. The BPSA was founded in 2008 by David Atchley of Washington, Mo., who as a leader of his son’s Cub Scout pack had a rift with regional BSA leaders over his efforts to adopt a nondiscrimination code.
Atchley, a software engineer, said the BPSA has grown steadily in the past two years, from just a handful of units to 19 now, ranging from Kingston, N.Y., and Exeter, N.H., to Albuquerque, N.M., and Sunnyvale, Calif.
Like the Navigators, the group is coed, with an inclusive membership policy, and Atchley says the contrast with the Boy Scouts has been a factor in its growth.
The organization takes its name from Robert Baden-Powell, whose initiatives in Britain in starting in 1907 launched the international Scouting movement.
Atchley said the BPSA, inspired by its namesake, focuses on outdoor skills and community service.
“It’s back to basics, instead of broadening the program to appeal to everybody under the sun,” he said, referring to the Boy Scouts’ efforts to modernize and diversify their activities.
SpiralScouts International. This coed organization originated in 2001 at the Aquarian Tabernacle Church in Index, Wash., which serves a Wiccan community.
Though developed on the basis of pagan beliefs and practices, it is open to youth and families of any faith – or no religious affiliation. Its units are known as circles; it also welcomes individual families who are designated as “hearths.”
Spokeswoman Rachel Scott said the U.S. component comprises about 150 adult volunteers and 350 youth scouts, ages 3-18, in 45 circles and hearths.
The mix of genders is a key principle, according to the group’s website.
“Our program encourages girls and boys to learn, play, and work together under the direction of leaders of both genders as a way of showing by example that both men and women are capable and cooperative leaders,” it says.
SpiralScouts has gone public with its disapproval of the Boy Scouts’ membership policies, offering to extend its highest rank to Eagle Scouts who have returned their badges to the BSA in protest over those policies.
– FAITH-BASED PROGRAMS
• The Southern Baptist Convention’s Royal Ambassadors. Founded in 1908, this is a program run by Southern Baptist churches for boys in first through sixth grade. The SBC’s Women’s Missionary Union, which oversees the program, estimates that it has about 6,300 adult leaders and 31,000 youth members. Its curriculum shares many features with the Boy Scouts but it also stresses a goal of providing boys with “godly characteristics” and a “biblical worldview.”
Of the major religious denominations that sponsor large numbers of Boy Scout units, the Southern Baptists have been among the most outspoken in urging the BSA to keep the ban on gays.
The SBC’s official news agency, Baptist Press, recently reported that the Royal Ambassador program might spread to more Southern Baptist churches if the BSA’s ban is lifted.
The article quoted Don Hinkle, editor of the Missouri Baptist Convention’s newspaper, as reminiscing fondly about his boyhood experience with the Royal Ambassadors.
“Perhaps in these sad, self-destructing days for the Boy Scouts of America, God will use RAs in a new and powerful way to bring honor and glory to Him,” Hinkle told Baptist Press.
In addition to the Royal Ambassadors, the SBC also oversees the Challengers, a program for boys aged 12-17.
• The Assemblies of God’s Royal Rangers. Founded in 1962 by one of the largest Pentecostal denominations, the Royal Rangers have about 81,000 youth members in about 4,000 units, according to church headquarters.
“We provide Christ-like character formation and servant leadership development for boys and young men in a highly relational and fun environment,” says the Rangers’ mission statement.
Every four years, the organization brings together several thousand boys and adult leaders for a “Camporama” at the Rangers’ campground in Eagle Rock, Mo. Last summer’s event featured a high-ropes course, two zip lines, a water slide, and a lumberjack show.
Like the Southern Baptists, the Assemblies of God considers homosexuality immoral and has urged the Boy Scouts not to lift the ban on gays. A statement to that effect, from the denomination’s leader, has been posted on the Rangers’ website.
“We are saddened and disappointed to hear that Boy Scouts of America, an organization long devoted to biblical values, is now considering loosening the principles in which it was founded,” says the Rev. George O. Wood. “We pray the BSA will give careful consideration to this matter and hold firm to the beliefs that have made it a strong and influential organization for more than 100 years.”
• The Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Pathfinders. Dating back more than 60 years, the coed Pathfinders program serves about 35,000 boys and girls ages 10-15 in the U.S. and Canada, according to James Black, the church’s director of youth ministries for North America.
Black said the program resembles the Boy Scouts in many respects, with an emphasis on camping, plus an array of honors and patches that the youth members can work for.
Unlike the Scouts, however, the Pathfinders operate as a church-based ministry, with a priority placed on community service. However, Black said boys and girls are welcome to join even if not from Seventh-day Adventist families.
Amid the Boy Scouts’ turmoil, there’s been an upsurge of inquiries from parents about possible participation in the Pathfinders, Black said.
“We don’t want to gain off of someone else’s misfortune – but we want to be there as an available option for healthy, meaningful programs,” he said. “We wish the best for the Boy Scouts. …Our hearts and prayers go out to them.”
• The Calvinist Cadet Corps. Founded in 1952, with a headquarters in Grand Rapids, Mich., this is a non-denominational but staunchly religious scouting-style program.
Office manager Kathy Door said the corps currently serves about 9,900 boys in 550 clubs in the U.S. and Canada, with strong bases of support in Michigan, Illinois, Iowa and the Pacific Coast.
“When someone who hasn’t heard of us asks questions, we tell them we’re sort of along the lines of Scouting but we are much more conservative,” Door said. “There are Bible lessons at every meeting.”
Most of the participants come from churches with Calvinist roots, such as the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church.
Door said the Cadet Corps was not trying to capitalize on the Boy Scouts’ current predicament, but had received inquiries in recent days from leaders of several local Boy Scout units interested in learning more about the corps.
• The Knights of Columbus’ Columbian Squires. This organization for Roman Catholic boys and young men ages 10-18 was founded in 1925 and claims a youth membership of more than 25,000, including some in units in Mexico and the Philippines.
The Squires, says the program’s website, “is an athletic team, a youth group, a social club, a cultural and civic improvement association, a management training course, a civil rights organization and a spiritual development program all rolled into one.”