February 02. 2013 10:50PM

Gay issue leads Scouts to find new Keene home

New Hampshire Sunday News

KEENE - Boy Scout Troop 18 had made its home at St. James Episcopal Church since 1949.

No longer.

The troop and the church recently parted ways over a national Boy Scouts of America membership policy that bans gays from Scouting.

Now BSA's national executive board is discussing removing that policy and leaving it up to the churches and other "chartered organizations" that host scout troops across the nation to set their own membership policies.

But it appears too late to fix the split that policy caused here.

Troop 18 has found a new home at St. George Greek Orthodox Church, just down the street from the Episcopal church.

"We found a very welcoming place, and I'm very happy for the troop," Scoutmaster Mark Hill said Friday evening.

The trouble began last fall when a parishioner at St. James raised concerns about hosting a Boy Scout troop, given the BSA policy that bans gay scouts, according to the Rev. Mark Jenkins, the rector.

Jenkins asked the vestry, the church's governing body, to put together a task force to study the issue. The group included individuals from families who had started Troop 18 at St. James, he said, as well as representatives from the gay community.

The group then met with representatives from Troop 18 and the Daniel Webster Council, and Jenkins said he thought they had reached an agreement to oppose the BSA ban together.

"What we thought was going to happen was that the (local) Boy Scouts would work with us to try to make a change at the national (BSA) level by saying, 'We're not in agreement with this (ban), and we're not going to abide by it,' as many Boy Scout troops around the country have done," he said. "But for whatever reason, the troop did not feel they could do that."

Jenkins, a former Scout, stressed the church did not ask Troop 18 to leave; he still thinks there were other options that could have been pursued. But he understands that "they probably felt like the welcome mat was being withdrawn."

That's exactly what it feels like to Mark Hill, a 15-year scoutmaster whose own two sons are Eagle Scouts.

As a Boy Scout volunteer, he said, he is obligated to follow BSA policies, including the membership ban. And that's what he told the church in an email.

Meanwhile, his troop of 25 boys, ages 11 to 18, was facing a Dec. 31 deadline to sign a new charter with the church. So they looked for another chartered organization that would accept them, policy and all, and found St. George Greek Orthodox Church, he said.

Hill said the BSA's membership policy on sexual orientation has never come up in all his years as a Scout leader. "We've never had to enforce it. We never felt we'd have to enforce it," he said.

"As far as I'm concerned, that's not even a subject that should come up in Scouts."

Hill said he ended up feeling his troop was discriminated against by St. James over what he called a "minute" portion of the overall Scouting program.

"We didn't feel welcome because of what was going on," he said. "So we found a place that welcomed us as we were."

How did Hill explain the move to his scouts? "We told them because of the BSA policy that we needed to find another place to charter."

Had the BSA changed its membership policy a few months ago, would Troop 18 still be at St. James?

"Probably," Hill said. "Because it wouldn't have come up from the church. The church brought it up; we did not. We didn't even know it was a problem."

"It was an unfortunate way to end a relationship," he said.

Rev. Jenkins, too, called the situation "really unfortunate."

"We're a church that does not discriminate," he said. "That said, we're also a church that tries to work with people and come up with creative solutions that could actually make a difference."

Jenkins said some members of the community are upset about what happened, but he said the church has also gotten a lot of support. And, he said, "Members of the parish who don't necessarily agree with what happened, or feel good about what happened, understand that we did the best we could."

In a Jan. 9 letter to parishioners, Jenkins wrote that the church "cannot lend our name to any effort or organization, no matter how well-intentioned, that treats any particular class of citizens in a manner that we believe to be unjust or to be disrespectful of their dignity."

He called for the vestry to come up with a policy on use of St. James' facilities that clarifies the church's "position on non-discrimination."

But until then, he wrote, "I have directed that our office not enter into any new facilities-use agreements with any party that is unwilling to abide by the Episopal Church's canons regarding non-discrimination."

Meanwhile, if the BSA does lift its membership ban when the national executive board meets this week, Hill said, nothing will change for his troop.

"It doesn't affect us one way or the other," he said. "We will still be providing as quality a program as we can to the boys that are in the troop, and we welcome all boys.

"We always have, we always will."