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Southern California troop leaders say eliminating ‘no-gay’ policy could revitalize Boy Scout programs (Photos)

Boy Scouts (from left) Zev Fagan, Jonathan Tenenbaum, Zachary Schulman and Jake Goldman listen to fellow scouts give speeches for their public speaking merit badge at Temple Beth Hillel in North Hollywood on January 28.
Boy Scouts (from left) Zev Fagan, Jonathan Tenenbaum, Zachary Schulman and Jake Goldman listen to fellow scouts give speeches for their public speaking merit badge at Temple Beth Hillel in North Hollywood on January 28.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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More than a dozen scouts in Troop 36 are gathered for a recent Tuesday night meeting at Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village.

The boys are getting a lesson in public speaking, but ut they’re not delivering speeches about how to tie a taut-line hitch or how to spark a fire with flint and steel.

The subject: gun control.

“Yes, the Constitution does say that people have the right to bear arms, but that can be changed,” says Jared Leon, 12, as he stands behind a podium.

The seventh grader has the full attention of his fellow scouts. Many are raising their hands, eager to challenge him in a debate. Gun control is a sensitive issue, but the Troop 36 leaders are letting the boys tackle it.

"Forbidden territory"

An issue that's a little too sensitive for discussion on this night is the one that the national leaders of the Boy Scouts of America might resolve this week: whether to drop the group's longstanding policy against allowing in openly homosexual scouts or scout leaders.

“While the boys may discuss it with each other, really as adult leaders, that’s kind of forbidden territory," says assistant scoutmaster Wayne Schulman. "That’s supposed to be discussed with their parent or with their religious leader.”

But Schulman says despite the national ban on gays, his troop practices inclusion,  and it has for years.

“We select our leaders based on values we find important to our faith," says Schulman. "As such, we’ve always been inclusive of parents, scouts and leaders. And that’s just been the way we’ve practiced here.”

"Some impact from within"

Temple Beth Hillel renews its Boy Scout troop charter every year to include language that underscores its commitment to allow anyone to join, regardless of sexual orientation. The Temple’s now-retired rabbi Jim Kaufman initiated the effort decades ago.

He recalls the sharp reaction to the Supreme Court ruling in 2000 that allowed the Boy Scouts of America to continue its no-gays policy. In protest, some synagogues wanted to toss out their Boy Scout troops.

Kaufman thought that was a mistake.

“I encouraged specifically synagogues that were throwing their troops out to keep their troops in and try to have some impact from within," says Kaufman. "Once you leave, you can’t fight very well.”

Temple Beth Hillel's Troop 36 has about 35 Boy Scouts. Not a large number compared to other Southland troops, but Kaufman says he saw the numbers grow when some synagogues got rid of their scouting programs.

"Always welcomed" gay parents

The national Boy Scouts of America policy of excluding gays makes it tougher for Troop 36 to recruit new scouts, says Hollywood film editor Glenn Cote. He helps run the Temple’s Cub Scout pack, which right now has more than 60 boys enrolled.

“There are a lot of gay and lesbian parents," Cote says. "They want their sons to have the same experience in scouting, and they’re not sure if they’re going to be welcome. We’ve always welcomed them.”

Mark Cutler, whose son became an Eagle scout last year, works to raise money for the scouting program at Temple Beth Hillel. Cutler says the group will gain more donor support if the national body lifts the policy denying gay membership.

Other doors could open, says Cutler, and “hopefully the school districts will take us back and allow us to be secular as well as religious and broaden our appeal.”

Some leaders say a new national policy to let local groups decide who to let into their scout troops won’t go far enough. Critics contend that removing the ban goes against the Boy Scout oath of living a life that’s "morally straight.”

Leaders at Temple Beth Hillel say regardless of how the national board decides, they’ll continue to operate as all-inclusive group — or they won’t operate at all.