DALLAS (AP) — Robert Gates became the Boy Scouts of America's president facing deep divisions within the organization's membership over whether to let gays serve openly in its ranks.
On Thursday, Gates finished his two-year term by arguing the Scouts had overcome that challenge and were ready to reverse years of membership declines.
In a speech to Scouting leaders, the former U.S. secretary of defense defended the compromise last year to allow openly gay adult leaders to serve in the Scouts, but give churches sponsoring troops the right to use sexual orientation as a guideline for selecting leaders.
Gates called the move a "difficult decision," but one that has been accepted by "the overwhelming preponderance of sponsoring institutions and volunteer leaders," according to prepared remarks released by the Scouts.
"Most importantly, through these challenges we have maintained our unity as a movement," Gates said. "Significantly, membership in recent months has begun to move in a positive direction for the first time in many years."
An Eagle Scout during his childhood in Kansas, Gates became Scouting president in 2014 after a long career in public service, including leading the Department of Defense under two presidents. He took over an organization facing steep membership declines and a split between its core membership — churches and religious groups, many of which opposed allowing gays — and corporate sponsors and local councils that wanted to see Scouting's membership policies changed.
As defense secretary, Gates had overseen the end of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding gays in the military. In his first speech as Scouting president, Gates told BSA leaders that had he been with the organization during the 2013 vote allowing openly gay youth, he would have pushed for gay adults to be included, too. He said he would not revisit that decision during his term, though.
But that proved impossible as several local Scouting councils flouted the ban on openly gay adults and anti-discrimination laws in many states opened the Scouts to possible lawsuits, Gates said Thursday.
Gates argued that last year's compromise has allowed the Scouts to begin reversing membership declines. He said that membership was down 2.8 percent this year, after a nearly 4 percent decline last year, but that there were positive signs in Cub Scouts and that new corporate sponsors were joining Scouting.
"Contrary to what you hear from some politicians, we continue to live in a great country," Gates said, in an apparent reference to the "Make America Great Again" catchphrase of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
"America needs Scouting to remind all of their duty to our country," Gates added.
Gates will be replaced by AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson.
Zach Wahls, spokesman for the advocacy group Scouts for Equality, said Thursday that he hoped Stephenson and other leaders could continue to help the organization grow.
"The Scouts still have an imperfect policy," he said. "But I think it's self-evident that there's less discrimination in the Boy Scouts of America than when Dr. Gates took office two years ago, and that is something I think we can all celebrate."
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