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Scouts back beliefs of sponsors who pay the bills, Unitarian says

The way John Buehrens sees it, the Boy Scouts of America is destined to become an LDS Church-centered institution because Scouting organizers are afraid to address society's move toward wider acceptance of diverse lifestyles, including homosexuality.

The Rev. Buehrens, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, said he believes Scouting "can be a very valuable program. I'm just pained that not only are the leaders handling their public relations atrociously," but they have "knuckled under to political pressure by those who pay the bills."In Salt Lake City for the denomination's annual convention this weekend at the Salt Palace, the Rev. Buehrens' remarks come following months of legal wrangling in several states over the status of gays, agnostics and atheists in Scouting. The Scout organization is based on a belief in God and the traditional family lifestyle.

After meeting with the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Wednesday, the Rev. Buehrens said he came away favorably impressed with President Gordon B. Hinckley. "I hope I'm that sharp when I'm his age."

He noted that both the LDS Church and Unitarian Universalism are American-based religious movements. Yet he acknowledged vast differences between the two faiths regarding a wide variety of issues, including homosexuality, which he views as "THE wedge issue in American religion."

While he didn't discuss the Boy Scout issue with LDS Church leaders, the Rev. Buehrens said 23 percent of all Scout troops are sponsored by the LDS Church. Latter-day Saints eschew the practice of homosexuality and hold a specific belief in God, along with espousing traditional family values.

In part because the LDS Church sponsors more Scout troops than any other single organization, the Rev. Buehrens said, national Scouting officials will continue to fight attempts to amend the organization to make it more inclusive of all beliefs and lifestyles.

Local Scouting spokesmen have recently affirmed that the organization will maintain its dedication to a belief in God and traditional family values.

"They (Scout officials) know how to screen (potential Scout leaders) for child abusers and pedophiles. They also know there are responsible gay and lesbian people who would be fine volunteers. But in pandering to fear, they have decided they are poor role models," the Unitarian leader said.

The Rev. Buehrens, who earned the rank of Life Scout as a teen, said Scouting helped him become a "world citizen" and formed the basis of many life-changing decisions he has made in his personal life. "Scouting was great for me. It was a wonderful seed bed for some things, where I developed pride in competency and good accomplishment."

In fact, several years ago he sponsored one of the first Boy Scout troops for homeless kids in New York City.

But as society "matures" and accepts people of all races and sexual orientations as equals, he said, Scouting needs to follow suit. "I'd like to see some Boy Scout troops doing some anti-homophobia education. That could be so powerful."

The Unitarian Universalist Association was among the first religious groups to ordain gay and lesbian clergy, approve same-sex unions and encourage membership among people of all sexual orientations, he said. "That follows our leading out in ordaining women back in the mid-1800s."

While the Rev. Buehrens said racism, homophobia and sexism still exist among membership in the UUA, he believes the denomination has made great strides in championing a focus on the quality of people's interpersonal relationships rather than being worried about specific "act-based" behavior.

That philosophy is reflected in many sessions of the four-day conference, which include everything from environmentalism to racism to U.S. foreign policy to discussions of what defines family and family values.

Because there is no one creed or doctrinal belief system in Unitarian Universalism, Christians, Jews and Buddhists as well as atheists claim membership in the denomination.

"President Hinckley asked me what holds us together," the Rev. Buehrens said. "From our founding, it was the determination to have the kind of church that would be truly inclusive."