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The bigoted Scouts of America.

Imagine a national organization with wide-ranging government support that continues to discriminate against persons on the basis of sexual orientation and religion. There is only one such group in the United States: the Boy Scouts of America. This huge organization (in contrast to the more liberal Girl Scouts) is making it abundantly clear that it knows exactly what it's doing--and that it has no intention of changing. While the Boy Scouts did finally prohibit racially segregated units, the group doggedly clings to its loathing of atheists and homosexuals.

The BSA has the general support and encouragement of all sorts of influential institutions, most notably the United States government. In Scout Explorer programs, government employees conduct valuable and unique training classes for high-school-age youth. Agencies such as police and fire departments run Explorer Posts according to the discriminatory rules prescribed by the BSA. This results in the clearly unconstitutional activity of government employees asking children to sign an oath regarding their religious beliefs. If the child refuses to sign a statement that "America's strength lies in her trust in God," the police officer, firefighter, or member of the National Guard is required to deny that youth entrance into this tax-supported program. In effect, the Boy Scouts has enlisted the government to monitor our attitudes on religion and even to punish individuals of whom they disapprove.

Atheists and gays are by no means the only people excluded from the BSA. A few years ago, the Muslim father of a Cub Scout was expelled from his position as a Cub Scout leader by the sponsoring organization, a Protestant church. The church felt that leadership of its Scouts should be restricted to Christians. The BSA stood behind this move, declaring that any sponsoring group could enforce whatever additional religious requirements it liked.

The Boy Scouts has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars during the past few years defending its bigotry in courtrooms around the country. In 1996, the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission ordered the BSA to admit an atheist as an adult leader and her child as a Scout. The organization has refused to comply, thereby committing itself to another long and unavoidably expensive court battle. Clearly, it is prepared to fight any attempt to be enlightened, with all the considerable resources at its command. Ironically, when the Scouts and its most important source of funds--the United Way--solicit donations to fund such tremendous legal expenses, they don't question the religion or sexual orientation of prospective benefactors.

Among the recent legal defeats against the BSA is one regarding the Randall twins, two young atheists from California whose family was recently named 1998 Humanist Pioneers by the American Humanist Association in recognition of their efforts to combat BSA bigotry. The Randalls filed suit when the BSA challenged the twins' membership because they refused to recite the portion of the Scout oath relating to "duty to God." The suit was based on California's Unruh Act, which forbids any California business from participating in religious and other discrimination.

A lower court ruled in favor of the Randalls, but the Boy Scouts appealed. The court ruled that the Randalls could work toward their Eagle badges while the litigation continued. In the meantime, the Randalls' case was combined with a similar challenge to the banning of gays. The BSA prevailed, however, when the state supreme court declared that the Boy Scouts is a "private group" and, as such, can restrict membership as it sees fit. As humanist Patrick Inniss, a Boy Scout discrimination activist, states: "This California Supreme Court decision upholding the rights of a `private' organization to exclude anyone for apparently any reason demonstrates that, even in states with anti-discrimination laws more rigorous than federal law, the BSA is impervious to direct attack."

This ruling is similar to the one in Chicago's 1993 Welsh case, which established that, for the purposes of federal civil rights legislation, the BSA cannot be considered a "public accommodation." While these suits have served an important role in bringing the problem to the attention of the public, and the possibility of more legal challenges remains, we may be unable to use the law directly to force the Scouts to change.

However, there has been a major legal victory. In March 1998, a New Jersey appeals court ruled against the BSA in a discrimination suit involving a gay Scout. James Dale was a nineteen-year-old Eagle Scout when he was expelled in 1990 after it was discovered through a newspaper article that he was gay. He sued and lost, then appealed and won in the state's appellate court. The court ruled that the BSA is "a place of accommodation" within the meaning of the law and is, therefore, bound by the state's anti-discrimination law. BSA spokesperson Gregg Shields insists that the Scouts "has a right, as a voluntary association... to establish membership and leadership standards" and says the group plans to appeal this ruling to the New Jersey State Supreme Court.

There have also been several small victories. In April, for instance, the Boy Scouts was booted from a San Francisco charity drive that raises hundreds of thousands of dollars from city employees because of the group's stance against admitting gays. "We have a long standing policy not to do business with groups that discriminate," said the city council in a statement, "and we feel very strongly about this." (Last year, city employees allowed $563,098 to be deducted from their paychecks and donated to charities, including the Boy Scouts.)

"The Boy Scouts are hated because they represent traditional morality in a Judeo-Christian context," claims Catholic League President William Donohue. What a turn-around! The Boy Scouts requires its members and leaders to be, among other things, "morally straight." It says that means it must exclude gays and atheists. Who is engaging in hatred here? "Oh, certainly not us," the BSA declares. "We're just a private, voluntary organization that insists on maintaining traditional values and freedom of association."

The BSA does have a huge vulnerability which we can and should exploit. No such organization can survive with out the support of the community, and community standards are increasingly inclusive of all elements of society. The Boy Scouts can't survive without the government agencies, community organizations, and corporate entities that provide indispensable support.

A few breakthroughs occurred in this area in 1991 and 1992, when the Bank of America and Levi Strauss both withdrew financial support for the Scouts. Unfortunately, these actions did not prompt other financial backers to do likewise. On April 15, 1998, at a national conference of Boy Scout sponsors and leaders, Joe Velasquez, director of the AFL-CIO's Department of Community Services and a BSA executive board member, eloquently summed up the situation in a statement of the union's position--a position that humanists can certainly endorse:

The AFL-CIO's relationship with

the Boy Scouts of America has

deep historical roots. In 1912

when the first leader of our organization,

Samuel Gompers, met

with the first leader of the Boy

Scouts of America, James E. West,

to talk about working together,

the Boy Scouts of America had

been in existence less than two

years. The AFL-CIO has worked

with the Scouts for these 80 years

because we share many values ....

The BSA has always offered the

labor movement an opportunity

to help America's youth .... We

believe it is our duty to pass those

values along to our children, to

teach them the things that are important:

an understanding of service

and personal responsibility, a

love of their country, and a deep

respect for the personal dignity

and individual rights of every


And he goes on to clearly denounce the BSA's policy of exclusion:

Because you're different from me,

because you're lower than me,

because you aren't really an individual

with individual rights and

personal dignity, because you're a

member of a group I don't like or I

don't understand, it follows that

not only can I discriminate against

you, I can beat you up, I can even

kill you and it doesn't really matter

because you're different from

me. Is this a lesson we want to

teach our young people? That it's

okay to hate people who are different

from us? To discriminate

against them? To deny them opportunities

because they're different?

Indeed, this is the crux of the matter. It's clear that this egregious situation has got to change--now.

What can you do? Margaret Downey has organized the Anti-Discrimination Support Network to report and coordinate opposition to the Boy Scouts' exclusion of atheists. Contact her via e-mail at or at the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia, P.O. Box 242, Pocopson, PA 19366; (610) 793-2737. Information for this article was provided by Patrick Inniss and can be accessed by visiting his website at or writing to him at P.O. Box 27005, Seattle, WA 98125.

Barbara Dority is president of Humanists of Washington, executive director of the Washington Coalition Against Censorship, and cochair of the Northwest Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force.
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Title Annotation:discrimination against homosexuals and atheists in the Boy Scouts of America
Author:Dority, Barbara
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 1, 1998
Previous Article:Human and ultimate consciousness; the pitfalls of rationalist cosmology.
Next Article:Desecularization.

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