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Gay man, ousted scoutmaster, welcomes ban review

New Hampshire Sunday News

February 02. 2013 10:43PM

Mark Noel 

Twelve years after Mark Noel was expelled from the Boy Scouts for revealing he was gay in a local newspaper, the former Hanover assistant scoutmaster says he welcomes news that the organization may be changing its membership ban on homosexuals.

But Noel, who is also an Eagle Scout, says while the proposed change is a "good first step," it doesn't go far enough.

Last week, Boy Scouts of America announced it was discussing "potentially removing the national membership restriction regarding sexual orientation." The issue is expected to be taken up this week by the BSA's national executive board.

In New Hampshire and elsewhere, scout troops are hosted by "chartered organizations."

The Daniel Webster Council, which encompasses most of New Hampshire, has about 300 such organizations; about half are churches. There are approximately 13,000 youth and 5,000 adults involved in scouting here.

The proposed new policy would leave it up to chartered organizations to "accept membership and select leaders consistent with each organization's mission, principles, or religious beliefs," Devon Smith, director of public relations for BSA, said in a statement posted on the web site. "BSA members and parents would be able to choose a local unit that best meets the needs of their families."

And, the statement went on, "Under this proposed policy, the BSA would not require any chartered organization to act in ways inconsistent with that organization's mission, principles or religious beliefs."

Greg Osborn is director of marketing for the Daniel Webster Council. Under the existing BSA membership policy, he said, "there was really no choice. If a leader was an avowed homosexual, then they would have been removed."

Under the proposed change, "it's left ... at the local level to make a decision that best suits their programs and their families and what they want to accomplish with scouting," he said. "And that to me is about as fair as you can get."

But that's what Noel finds problematic.

"Essentially, what this policy would say is it moves from 'discrimination is required' to 'discrimination is okay.'

"Because what it's saying is if you want to keep discriminating against gay people, go right ahead," he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 affirmed the Boy Scouts' right to bar homosexuals from membership, in a case involving a former scout leader who was expelled when his sexual orientation was revealed in a newspaper article. (New Hampshire's David Souter dissented in that decision.)

Kevin Donovan, director of communication for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester, said he doesn't expect a change in the BSA national membership policy would affect any of the Catholic churches that host scout troops.

And, he said, "there is nothing in our code and policy that precludes individuals from volunteering in organizations because of their sexual orientation."

The executive board of Daniel Webster Council is set to meet Wednesday. Whatever the national BSA decides, Osborn said, he expects the issue will be a topic of discussion that night.

Nadine Nutt is a assistant scoutmaster for Troop 521 in Londonderry. She said she would welcome a policy change at the national level.

Nutt noted that background checks are done on anyone who wants to be an adult leader. "Beyond that, if somebody's an excellent leader, why question that?"

She believes the ban has likely held back some boys from joining scouts. Lifting it would help change that, she said. "People wouldn't feel like they were a second-class citizen," she said. "They would feel like they belonged."

The policy the BSA's executive board is now considering is what Noel himself proposed in an op-ed published in the Valley News on July 2, 2000, when he argued that the case that sparked the Supreme Court decision should never have gone to trial. It was that article, and its disclosure that he is gay, that prompted his dismissal from the Boy Scouts.

"Local units have always been responsible for choosing leaders that reflect the needs of those communities, and the Boy Scouts should have left it at that," he wrote.

But the world has changed since he wrote that, said Noel, now 42 and living in Maryland. He no longer thinks it's enough to let local sponsors decide whether to admit gay scouts.

The military did away with its don't-ask-don't-tell policy; more states, including New Hampshire, have legalized same-sex marriage, and the Supreme Court is about to take up the issue, Noel noted. "It's pretty clear where the arc of the moral universe is going in this particular case," he said.

Noel is a co-founder of the Inclusive Scouting Network, an advocacy group that created a rainbow-hued badge adults and scouts can wear as a sign of opposition to the official BSA policy.

"We're shipping them right now at a rate of 600 a week," he said. "It's just a gentle reminder that just because somebody's wearing the uniform doesn't mean they agree with the discrimination."

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