The Rev. Aaron Stockwell remembers the old Army tent where he attended his first Unitarian Universalist service like it was yesterday. A single light bulb hung from the ceiling, lighting the congregation of Boy Scouts gathered for their annual Jamboree. As the rain poured down outside, their voices swelled to the refrains of “Enter, Rejoice and Come In.”
Stockwell was hooked. It was the first step on a path that would eventually lead him into the ministry. Today, Stockwell serves as the developmental minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Brazos Valley, in College Station, Texas. “I just have such vivid memories of that service,” he said. “A lot of my first experiences of leading and creating worship services were at Boy Scout events.”
On March 24, 2016, Stockwell joined the Rev. Mary Katherine Morn, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s director of stewardship and development, and Michael Surbaugh, chief scout executive for the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), to renew the formal relationship between the BSA and the UUA. They were joined by the Rev. Dr. Richard Gilbert, minister emeritus of First Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York. Stockwell and Gilbert, both Eagle Scouts, heard their calls to the ministry through their involvement with the Boy Scouts.
“We have always acknowledged the many shared values between the Boy Scouts and our Unitarian Universalist tradition,” the Rev. Peter Morales, UUA president, said in a statement. “I am happy to see our two organizations form new bonds of mutual understanding which will allow Unitarian Universalist boys and young men who want to participate in scouting to be able to do so within their own Unitarian Universalist community.”
The two organizations first parted ways in 1998 over the UUA’s Religion in Life award. Scouts earn religious recognition awards, a kind of merit badge, by completing a course run by their religious body. In its course, the UUA included material critical of the Boy Scouts’ ban on openly gay members and of the inclusion of “duty to God” in the Scout Oath. The BSA responded by withdrawing its recognition of the UUA’s religious awards.
In one exchange, Lawrence Ray Smith, then chair of the BSA’s Religious Relationships Committee, accused then UUA President John Buehrens of “using boys as a venue to air your differences with the policies of the Boy Scouts of America.”
The BSA’s position has changed dramatically since then. The organization began letting in gay scouts in 2013. And in 2015, it removed a ban on gay scout leaders.
Now, both the BSA and the UUA hope the new memorandum of understanding will start a new era of cooperation between their organizations. The document affirms the UUA’s commitment to freedom of conscience and to LGBT rights, and it promises that the organizations will “work cooperatively with each other within the policies and regulations of each organization to establish and nurture Scouting units.”
“There is no Boy Scout or UUA authority which supersedes the authority of the leadership of the congregation in any phase of the program affecting the spiritual welfare of those who participate,” the memorandum concludes, in a nod to the importance that Unitarian Universalism places on decision-making by local congregations.
The reconciliation is especially meaningful for Zach Wahls, a lifelong UU and an Eagle Scout who co-founded the advocacy group Scouts for Equality. Local scout troops chartered by conservative religious organizations can still choose to exclude gay scout leaders, according to Wahls. Scouts for Equality continues to push for changes in that policy. But Wahls, who currently serves on Scouts for Equality’s board, believes the UUA and other progressive groups can have a greater impact on the inside.
“By bringing other progressive, open and affirming congregations into the fold, as well as secular organizations that are not going to abide discrimination, that makes it easier for the Boy Scouts to change their policies—not more difficult,” Wahls said.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the largest sponsor of Boy Scout units, according to Wahls, with many also sponsored by Roman Catholic churches. However, there are signs that could be changing. Both the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Church of Christ renewed their relationships with the BSA in 2015.
Last year, Scouts for Equality also asked people and organizations that left scouting over the BSA’s discriminatory policies to rejoin and push for change within the organization. Now with the UUA back in the fold, Wahls is optimistic about scouting’s future.
“When you have the UUA, the UCC, public schools at the table, it helps the Scouts see that if they decide to change their membership policies and include non-theists,” Wahls said, “it makes it much easier for them to make that change if and when that time comes.”