Trail Life USA grows roots in Arizona

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By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver

PHOENIX -- Boy Scouts of America remains the largest youth group in the country, but it has had a rough year.

While groups continue to put pressure on the 104-year-old organization to allow gay leaders, some Christians have decided to break rank. They made a strictly Christian group where gay boys would not be welcome.

A Lake Roosevelt campsite was full of families this spring. Boys learned to prep the food, before putting the Dutch oven on the coals. It could have been confused for a family boy scouting event, but this group is on a different path. The boys are members of Trail Life USA, the organization born out of frustration with Boy Scouts of America.

“They were fighting for a cause and they won,” said Trail Life organizer and parent Larry Altman. “BSA didn't uphold what they were fighting for.”

“Betrayed and very upset that the question was even brought up and discussed,” said fellow parent Michael Ybarra.

Ybarra and Altman are talking about the vote Boy Scout representatives took one year ago to allow openly gay boys to stay in the program.

“We are always taught to be morally straight, marriage between a man and a woman,” Altman said.

“What you are saying is our qualities, values, goals and mottos ... are for sale to the highest bidder,” Ybarra added.

Both men hold deep Christian beliefs and don't condone homosexuality. That is why these Eagle Scouts are helping form Trail Life troops in Arizona.

Think scouts but with a signed commitment to Christian doctrine. Because of that, it is highly unlikely people of the Morman, Jewish or Muslim faiths would ever join, and openly gay boys are not welcome.

“There are options for folks,” Ybarra said. “Trail Life won't be for everybody.”

Many writers and activists have accused Trail Life USA of simply being Boy Scouts with more bigotry. When asked if he was a bigot, Altman took a long pause before answering.

“I am a very religious person and I stand behind my religious beliefs,” he said.

“When we want to exert our viewpoints,” Ybarra added, “then we are labeled as bigots and narrow-minded. The irony is there is not really a message of tolerance.”

Altman and Ybarra had a life filled with scouting. Now, they can only see scenarios where their sons might be put in uncomfortable situations.

“When I was 11, 12, 13, I thought it was neat to just hang out with boys, talk about boy things, be a boy thing,” Altman said.

“I did worry about that and the open and avowed homosexuality,” Ybarra said.

They point out that older boys hold leadership positions with a great deal of sway over the younger boys.

“We don't gay bash, we don't talk about it at all,” said Larry Abbott, the scout executive for Grand Canyon Council BSA. “If somebody is pushing an agenda, then that's a behavioral thing and we don't want any agenda pushed on political stuff or any social issue like that.”

Abbott said that while Boy Scouts of America accepts gay boys, it was a vote taken by volunteers after much debate, not the result of political or financial pressure. He says some corporate sponsors were happy to support the group if they kept denying membership to gay boys.

“We probably lost more money on this deal than we would have made on it,” Abbott said. “Really not a financial issue at all.”

Boy Scouts lost major sponsors such as Lockheed Martin because it still doesn't accept adult gay leaders.

“One of the key things is, we don't ask,” Abbott said.

He said there is no talk about ending the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Altman and Ybarra believe allowing openly gay leaders would drive more religious families to the ranks of Trail Life.

“I wanted to be part of organization that doesn't sway with popular public opinion,” Ybarra said.

For now, they are satisfied with building one troop at a time and standing up for their beliefs.

“Sticking with what I believe in and how I want my boys raised,” said Altman. “Not being swayed by what everyone else thinks is right.”

Trail Life has six troops around the Valley recruiting boys now.

The Boy Scouts don't have an official position on Trail Life, but the organization announced earlier this year that national membership dropped 6 percent. Abbott says in Arizona, the drop was about 1 percent.