PORTLAND — Austin Smith received his Eagle Scout medal in 1973, when he was a 16-year-old boy living in Columbus, Miss.

The award not only capped off a longtime commitment to the Boy Scouts, but it fulfilled a dream of his family.

His father, Lynn, had made it all the way to the Life Scout rank, which is one step below the coveted Eagle Scout honor. At age 14, his dad had to quit, get a job and help support his family.

“This award is really precious to me,” said Smith, a 54-year-old architect who lives in Portland’s Rosemont neighborhood. “It’s precious to my whole family.”

However, Smith is packing up his medal — a sterling silver eagle dangling from a red, white and blue ribbon — and his plaque signed by President Richard Nixon and returning them to the Boy Scouts of America national headquarters in Texas.

Like other Eagle Scouts throughout the country, Smith, who has a wife and three children, is returning the hardware in protest of BSA’s recent affirmation of its longstanding ban on openly gay Scouts and Scout leaders.

“I can no longer support the BSA if it cannot include or recognize the gay community,” said Smith, who grew up in the South and witnessed racial discrimination. “I want to be on the right side of history.”

BSA is a voluntary, private organization that “provides the nation’s foremost youth program of character development and values-based leadership training,” according to its website.

Its policy states: “While the BSA does not proactively inquire about the sexual orientation of employees, volunteers, or members, we do not grant membership to individuals who are open or avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the BSA.”

The policy affirmation, announced on July 17, came after a two-year review.

“While the majority of our membership agrees with our policy, we fully understand that no single policy will accommodate the many diverse views among our membership or society,” Bob Mazzuca, BSA’s chief Scout executive, said in a written statement.

The national office has received “a few” medals returned in protest, according to Deron Smith, BSA’s director of public relations.

“Since we rarely receive medals back, we do not have a formal procedure in place to track how many medals are returned,” Smith said.

More than 50,000 Eagle Scout medals are awarded each year and more than 2 million have been awarded to date, Smith said.

The returned medals are being stored at BSA national headquarters or at the National Scouting Museum, he said.

Pine Tree Council of Maine 218, which oversees more than 337 Scouting units with more than 9,150 children in 10 southern Maine counties, has heard from only two people about with the policy, according to Executive Director Eric Tarbox.

Tarbox, who has been director for five weeks, said he has reached out to those people, one of whom is a recent Eagle Scout interested in returning his medal, in an effort to allay their concerns.

While the national policy expressly prohibits “open or avowed homosexuals” from being members, Tarbox said the Pine Tree Council interprets that policy as having “zero tolerance to sexual advocacy and behavior” to a group of children mostly between the ages of 7 and 18.

“In the Pine Tree area, we view (the national policy) sort of in a broader way,” Tarbox said, noting the executive committee has not voted on his interpretation. “It isn’t an issue of heterosexuality or homosexuality.”

Tarbox recommends that Eagle Scouts upset about the policy not turn in their medals. Instead, they should work within the organization to change policies they don’t agree with, he said.

“Scouts are taught … not to quit and turn in something like their medals,” he said. “We teach all Scouts to maintain their belief by working within the organization.”

Austin Smith said he has been concerned about the policy for years.

The recent reaffirmation of it brought him to a breaking point. After seeing reports about other Eagle Scouts returning their medals in protest, he felt compelled to do the same.

“I’m not sure it will change anything in the Boy Scouts,” said Smith, a former Scout leader in Washington, D.C., who moved to Maine in 1985. “I just want to have the comfort of knowing I spoke my piece.”

Smith said that although he knows he is doing the right thing, it still will be difficult to pack up his medal and plaque and mail them back to the Boy Scouts on Friday.

“They’re beautiful objects of such significance,” he said.

Smith, who learned the value of perseverance and incremental change, said he always wanted to have his Eagle Scout accomplishment noted — especially in his obituary.

Now, he said, he will not identify himself with that honor until BSA changes its policy.

“I would love for them to change their policy and return (the medal and plaque),” Smith said.

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