As gay vote looms, church-based Scouting draws interest
They have pledges. They have merit badges. And they may go camping.
But they're not Boy Scouts.
Across the country, there are decades-old religious alternatives with names like Pathfinders (Seventh-day Adventist), Royal Ambassadors (Southern Baptist) and Royal Rangers (Assemblies of God).
And as the Boy Scouts of America considers whether to change its membership policy to admit gay members (but continue its ban on gay leaders), some of these groups are fielding inquiries from people concerned about the action the BSA may take.
Leaders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church's Pathfinders have been asked about their program in light of the pending Boy Scout vote, said James Black, the Adventists' North American director of youth ministries.
"If individuals saw the Pathfinders as a viable option for their children," he said, "we would welcome them with open arms."
Some denominational leaders with strong ties to the Boy Scouts including Roman Catholics and United Methodists have said they are still weighing the Scouts' proposed change, which will face a vote during the BSA's May 22-24 annual meeting.
The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which hosts more Scouts troops than any other organization, has endorsed the proposed change, saying it is "satisfied that BSA has made a thoughtful, good-faith effort" with the resolution.
But Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee, said the change "would force sponsoring churches to subordinate their convictions to stay involved with the Boy Scouts."
A recent story in Baptist Press included tips on how a church can start a Royal Ambassadors program. The missions-focused program for elementary school boys, is hosted in about 3,000 churches, most of which are Southern Baptist.
Steve Heartsill, managing editor of the program's curriculum, said there has been "some uptick in phone calls" as the vote approaches.
The Assemblies of God offices in Springfield, Mo., have received many calls in the past few months about its Royal Rangers program. "The inquiries come in waves, increasing each time a new report on the topic releases," the denomination said.
Dick Broene, executive director of the Calvinist Cadet Corps, said his evangelical organization heard from Scout leaders who had considered leaving the BSA when it appeared the group might approve including gay leaders. The CCC includes Bible lessons in weekly meetings and connects merit badges to Scripture.
"We are very similar in many ways, with the merit badges and rank advancement, uniforms and emphasis on camping," said Broene, whose organization drew 1,200 participants to a 2011 triennial camporee in Michigan. "The difference is we have Christ at the heart of everything we do."
Like the Calvinist Cadet Corps, the CSB (Christian Service Brigade) Ministries is not connected to a particular denomination. It recently moved from Wheaton, Ill., to Hamburg, N.Y. , and has fielded inquiries.
"We are difficult to find," said Dale Kinkade, CSB Ministries' Ohio Valley regional director, who is handling Scout-related calls. "Despite that, we have had quite a few inquiries of who and what we are."
Kinkade said his evangelical group is not as outdoors-oriented as the BSA, but it has a "Shape N Race Derby" that resembles the Scouts' Pinewood Derby. It also features the rank of "Herald of Christ," which is similar to the Boy Scouts' Eagle Scout.
"Our goal," he said, "is to go beyond raising up character, and especially in citizenship, but really focuses in on building up a young man who has awareness of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ."
Supporters of OnMyHonor.net, a new organization spearheading efforts to oppose the BSA policy change, said in a May 5 simulcast that some Scout-affiliated church groups are considering pulling out if the vote doesn't go their way. Religious groups charter 70 percent of the Scout-sponsoring organizations.
"That relationship is at risk, as is the future of one of the last nonreligious institutions that has not yielded to political correctness," said a narrator of the simulcast, which was hosted by the Family Research Council.
Boy Scouts officials are aware of the potential effect of a gay-related policy change on religious units. According to an executive summary on the BSA website, a change in the youth membership policy "would be consistent with the religious beliefs of the BSA's major chartered organizations." A policy change about both leaders and members could cause "membership losses in a range from 100,000 to 350,000."
Some religious Scout leaders said they have not had any inquiries from people wondering about Scouting alternatives.
"We have no plans to offer alternatives," said Larry Coppock, the United Methodist Church's national director of Scouting ministries.
R. Chip Turner, national chairman of the BSA's Religious Relationships Task Force, said he's grateful the Scouts delayed the process about a potential policy change. Now, he said, it's a matter of prayer as the task force gathers at the BSA annual meeting before the vote occurs.
Other Scout-like groups
Founded by the Salvation Army in the 1980s, Adventure Corps includes about 1,300 units of boys from grades 1-8. The program focuses on teamwork, leadership and Christian fellowship. Boys do not have to be a member of a Salvation Army congregation. There are about 130 Boy Scout troops affiliated with the Salvation Army.
Calvinist Cadet Corps
Founded in 1952, Calvinist Cadet Corps includes boys in first grade through high school. This evangelical organization has about 400 U.S. clubs. Its weekly meetings include a Bible lesson.
Founded in 1946, Caravan includes about 600 clubs in U.S. churches affiliated with the Church of the Nazarene. The clubs, which include boys and girls from first through sixth grade, focus on church doctrine. About 150 Nazarene churches have Boy Scout troops.
CSB (Christian Service Brigade) Ministries
Founded in 1937, CSB includes about 300 units of boys in the first through 12th grades. This evangelical organization aims to build boys' character with an emphasis on the Bible.
Dating to the 1920s, this organization of the Seventh-day Adventist Church includes more than 2,000 clubs of girls and boys in grades 5-10 in North America. About 60 percent of the members are girls and 40 percent are boys. They do not have to be members of a Seventh-day Adventist congregation.
Founded in 1908 and operated by the Woman's Missionary Union of the Southern Baptist Convention, Royal Ambassadors includes boys in grades 1-6 in about 3,000 churches in the U.S. Some Southern Baptist churches also have Boy Scout troops.
Founded in 1962 by the Assemblies of God, Royal Rangers includes boys in kindergarten through 12th grade in about 4,000 groups in the U.S. Its goal is to provide boys with "Christlike character formation." The Assemblies of God also hosts about 90 Boy Scout troops.
Adelle M. Banks
Boy Scouts' top sponsors
1 • LDS Church, 420,977 youths in 37,882 units.
2 • United Methodist Church, 371,491 youths in 11,078 units.
3 • Catholic Church, 283,642 youths in 8,570 units.
4 • Parent-teacher groups, other than PTAs, 153,214 youths in 3,712 units.
5 • Presbyterian Church, 127,931 youths in 3,663 units.
Source: 2011 Boy Scouts of America Local Council Index