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Boy Scout policy change on homosexuality weighs heavily on Kootenai sheriff

“My faith influences what I do every day,” said Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger, pictured in February. (File)
“My faith influences what I do every day,” said Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger, pictured in February. (File)

Ben Wolfinger, the sheriff of Kootenai County, said he has not decided to keep or drop the Boy Scout troop chartered by the sheriff’s office.

But he said his Christian faith and what the Bible says about homosexuality are weighing heavily on him as he struggles with the recent decision by the Boy Scouts of America to end the organization’s membership ban on gay youth.

“I don’t think I can make any decision in my life without bringing my faith into it,” Wolfinger, an elder in the large, evangelical Real Life Ministries church, said in an interview Thursday. “My faith influences what I do every day.”

Wolfinger indicated last week he was compelled to drop the charter with Troop 911, saying it would be inappropriate for the sheriff’s office to continue the association because Idaho’s “crimes against nature” statute prohibits sodomy.

Since a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a similar law in Texas, Idaho’s law is not enforced and is widely considered archaic, although Wolfinger said he’s not convinced it’s entirely antiquated. Regardless, he said the law has less bearing on his deliberation than what he sees as a conflict in the values the Boy Scouts represents.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of people who are very concerned about this, because I don’t think they see that ‘duty to God’ and sexual orientation work together. … I don’t see that as a mesh. The Bible’s pretty clear,” he said.

Other organizations in the region are discussing whether to continue their Scout charters, but it’s too early to know how that will play out, said Tim McCandless, CEO of the Scouts’ Inland Northwest Council. He declined to name the organizations, saying those conversations are private.

“It’s only been a week and we have not had the opportunity to speak to all of our charter organizations to assess their positions, and many have not made final decisions,” McCandless said.

If groups do discontinue their charters, he added, “our executives will work with unit leadership to identify another suitable chartered organization and ensure a smooth transition for the families involved.”

Coeur d’Alene Bible Church, which charters Troop 211, disagrees with the Scouts’ policy change but will endeavor to respond “with grace and diplomacy,” said Andy Day, a pastor at the church.

“We believe that homosexuality is not the ideal and not what God calls us to,” Day said. “But at the same time we don’t want to condemn, we want to love. And we want to be able to reach out where we can. The culture is changing, and at every turn we are called to assess and adapt and see how we can still be effective in reaching a lot of people in need.”

Troop 211 is not part of Coeur d’Alene Bible’s ministry but does meet at the church.

“We are standing behind our Scout leaders,” Day said. “We’ve allowed them to lead their own group, and that group is leaning toward not renewing their charter, and we stand behind that decision.”

In the wake of the policy change, churches in Kentucky and Arkansas quickly announced they would break ties with local troops. But the Catholic and Mormon churches, two of the largest troop sponsors, vowed to continue their relationship with Scouting.

In making the policy change, the Boy Scouts reaffirmed a Scout’s “duty to God” and stated, “Any sexual conduct, whether homosexual or heterosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting.”

The issue is not sex, it’s inclusion and fairness, said Thomas Carter, executive director of the Human Rights Education Institute in Coeur d’Alene.

“They’re not giving out merit badges for people to be gay,” Carter said. “They want inclusion, they want acceptance. They want to be a part.”

The debate over including gay people smacks of the racial segregation arguments of the 1960s, he said.

“It’s time for us to move forward as people and see people as people,” Carter said.

Wolfinger, who was elected in November, met with McCandless earlier this week and read the Scouts’ resolution on the policy change for the first time. The statement, which says Scouts are still developing and “understanding their duty to God to live a moral life,” does cause the sheriff to wrestle with the decision on the troop charter, he admitted.

“I understand what the Scouts are trying to do. I think they would like to be a positive influence in a boy’s life,” Wolfinger said. “And most Scouts join Scouting at a very young age, a prepubescent age, and sexual orientation is something they don’t even understand. You join Scouts at 6 years of age, and all girls are yucky at that time, aren’t they?”

Asked if he believes people are born gay or choose to be gay, the sheriff replied, “I won’t even go there, but I think through the power of Christ they can make a choice to not be gay.”

Wolfinger, who was a Scout as a boy and saw his two sons involved in Scouting, said he has received supportive feedback as well as hate mail in recent days, including one labeling him a bigot.

“That’s the last thing I am, is a bigot. I’m not discriminating against the people who are homosexuals,” he said. “Christ associated with sinners, he just didn’t like the sin. That’s how I try to look at things: The Bible says it’s a sin.”

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