Published on Tuesday, July 18, 2000 in the Philadelphia Inquirer
Gay Boy Scouts Returning Prized Eagle Badges In Protest
by Gwen Florio
 
Kevin Peter is an Eagle Scout. His older brother is an Eagle Scout. And Peter had hoped the time would come when his son, Ben, now just 2, would join scouting's elite.

"But no more," Peter, 36, of Mount Airy, wrote in a letter. Two weeks ago he took the letter, packaged it with his Eagle badge, and shipped it back to the Boy Scouts of America's headquarters in Texas - in protest.

This month, some Eagle Scouts around the country, both gay and straight, have returned their badges to the Boy Scouts as testament to their unhappiness with the Scouts' policy of barring homosexuals from serving as leaders. That policy was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 28.

It is not clear how many Scouts have taken this step. One group monitoring the action says several hundred Eagle Scouts have done so. It is a dramatic statement: the Eagle rank is the highest achievement in the Boy Scouts, held by the likes of former President Gerald Ford, film director Steven Spielberg, and former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley.

But Peter no longer wishes to be part of that group. Nor would he want his son to join.

"The reality is that there are a lot of gay men in this country," said Peter, who is straight. "If you're coming up as a leader and you're thinking that gay men don't have a place in society, then you're not going to serve your country well."

About 4 percent of the million Scouts active in this country are Eagle Scouts. Achieving that rank, said Peter and others, was one of the most meaningful events of their lives.

"I remember vividly standing on the stage of a public park arena and having my mother pin the badge on my chest," said the Rev. Gene Huff, of the moment in 1943 in Chickasha, Okla., when he became an Eagle Scout. The leadership qualities he learned in scouting helped him to become a Presbyterian minister, Huff said by phone yesterday.

Those qualities, he wrote in the letter sent with his returned badge, did not include prejudice.

"I was not taught by scoutmasters of former years, even in Oklahoma in the '40s, that morality and intolerance could be joined," wrote Huff, 72, of San Francisco.

The Boy Scouts insisted - and the high court agreed - that as a private organization, it can set its own standards for membership and leadership.

"We believe an avowed homosexual is not a role model for the values espoused in the Scout Oath and Law," the organization said after the court ruling.

Since then, the group's headquarters in Irving, Texas, has received "quite a few" Eagle badges from Scouts unhappy with the decision, said Gregg Shields, national spokesman for the Scouts.

Shields said there was no way of knowing just how many badges have been returned. There are hundreds of local Scouting groups around the country, some of which also have received returned badges, he said. Huff, for instance, sent his to a local chapter.

Scouting for All, a group in Petaluma, Calif., formed to persuade the Scouts to adopt antidiscrimination policies for gay Scouts and leaders, said it had received "several hundred - up to a thousand" e-mails from Eagle Scouts who say they had have returned badges.

Scott Cozza, the group's leader, said Scouting for All discourages the action. "We believe the Boy Scouts of America don't deserve the Eagle badges," he said. "They're not practicing what a good Scout should be."

The group is organizing a national day of protest at Boy Scout offices on Aug. 21.

"But for some people," Cozza said, returning their badges "is the ultimate form of protest, and we have to totally respect that." Scouting for All's Web site - www.scoutingforall.org - suggests that Eagle Scouts who want to turn in their badges send them to the national headquarters in Texas.

The Family Research Council in Washington, a conservative group that supports the Scouts' right to bar gay leaders, decried the move to return the badges.

"I think it's sad that they would do that," said Rob Regier, a policy analyst for the council. "They've bought into the false notion that this is a new civil rights movement."

Kevin Peter sees it that way, though.

He said the Scouts' present policy "creates a hostile environment for gay men. It creates a misperception among Scouts anywhere that . . . gay men are not people to have around."

Peter said Ben's godfather is gay - and an Eagle Scout. "I would not have agreed to have this gentleman as my son's godfather if he were not a good role model," he said.

He brought Ben with him to the post office the day he mailed back the badge. "I didn't think anything of it until I pushed the package across the counter," he said. "Then it hit me."

He had always, he said, kept the badge close to him, in a box in his desk. "It was a personal touchstone for me," he said.

And now it is gone.

2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.

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