The first-graders in Ohio Pack 109's Tiger Scouts didn't know or care their den mother was a lesbian — at least not until the Boy Scouts of America threw her out over the organization's ban on gays.
Now, parents who were aware of Jennifer Tyrell's sexual orientation well before she took the boys on campouts and helped them carve race cars for the annual Pinewood Derby have rallied to her defense in a case that has re-ignited the debate over the Scouts' policy.
"I teach my children to judge people on their actions," said Rob Dunn, a father in Bridgeport, a village of about 2,000 across the Ohio River from Wheeling, W.Va. "Whether you agree with their lifestyle or not."
The Boy Scouts of America, whose oath calls for members to be "morally straight," maintains that as a private organization it has the right to exclude gays and atheists from its ranks.
That stance was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 but has led many state and local governments to deny support for the Scouts.
Male scout leaders who are gay have long been barred, but instances of women being excluded are not well-documented and probably rare. A lesbian couple in Vermont were told two years ago that they could no longer be involved with their son's Scout troop.
Because of the policy, Tyrell said she only reluctantly allowed her 7-year-old son to join up in Bridgeport, where she lives with her partner and their four children. Told, she said, by the local cub master that it didn't matter that she is a lesbian, she was drafted to lead the pack in September.
Tyrell told parents at their first meeting about her sexual orientation. Some already knew her because she had coached youth baseball and volunteered at school, organizing class parties and reading to children.
"She wasn't trying to hide anything," said Dunn, whose son is among the dozen or so members of the boys-only pack. "Nobody I know of has ever made a single complaint against her."
Tyrell said she was removed in April, right after she was asked to take over as treasurer of the local Boy Scout troop — which oversees Tiger Scouts, Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts — and she raised questions about the finances.
She said the Boy Scout Council for the region told her she had to resign because she is gay.
"In this case, the policy was understood by her and her fellow volunteers but not followed," said Deron Smith, a spokesman for the Boy Scouts of America at its headquarters in Irving, Texas. "When a fellow pack leader made a complaint about it, to a local Scouting professional, they followed the policy."
The organization said it believes Scouting is not the right place for youngsters to be exposed to issues of sexual orientation.
Tyrell said she is not certain who complained, but she felt betrayed.
So did parents, who organized a protest last week outside the church where the pack held its meetings. They demanded Tyrell be reinstated.
Crystal Sabinsky said: "My son asked me last night, 'Why did Jen leave? Why is she in trouble?' He doesn't understand."
"The only people who were hurt were the kids," Dunn said "They're asking questions they shouldn't have to ask at this point."
Parents of the Tiger Scouts, a program for first-grade boys before they become Cub Scouts, said they never heard Tyrell mention her sexuality to the children. Club rules require a parent or other adult to accompany each child to every meeting.
"I had no clue she was a lesbian. It doesn't really make a difference to me," said Don Thomas, whose grandson is in the pack. "She did a fantastic job, and the kids loved her. You couldn't ask for a better den leader."
Gay rights groups have taken up Tyrell's cause, starting an online petition to get the Scouts to change their policy.
"The extent that people care is amazing," Tyrell said. "We're a perfectly normal family. We're not dangerous. We're not predators. We're just normal, everyday people."
Associated Press writers Deepti Hajela in New York and Andrew-Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.