Last night, my wife and I started having a stirring conversation about religion and secularization while walking to the nearby the 7-11. During the return trip, the conversation veered from associations (i.e. the external differences between those that are religious and those that are secular) to the Boy Scouts of America. I mentioned that the Boy Scouts of America is a religious institution. She scoffed, and told me I was wrong. She told me her mother worked for the Boy Scouts of America. I told her I was a scout at one time.
About five minutes later, we dropped the conversation.
I took the standpoint that the Boy Scouts of America is a religious institution and I stand by that accusation. Spirituality (in some form) has been an integral part of the Scouting movement since its inception. Robert Baden-Powell even wrote “No man is much good unless he believes in God and obeys His laws” in the first Scouting handbook back in 1908.
Many aspects of the Boy Scouts of America infer to God and the official stance on religion within Scouting is as follows:
“The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God. In the first part of the Scout Oath or Promise the member declares, ‘On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law.’ The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe and the grateful acknowledgment of His favors and blessings are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing members.”
— Declaration of Religious Principle, Bylaws of Boy Scouts of America, art. IX, sect. 1, cl. 1
Furthermore, the Scout Oath:
“On my honor, I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country
and to obey the Scout law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake, and morally straight.”
And the Scout Law:
“A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”
The Boy Scout Handbook further explains the Scout Oath and the Scout Law. According to the handbook, the “Duty to God” portion of the Oath refers to a Scout’s “family and religious leaders teach [the Scout] about God and the ways [he] can serve. You do your duty to God by following the wisdom of those teachings every day and by respecting and defending the rights of others to practice their own beliefs.” The Boy Scout Handbook also defines the term “reverent” within the Scout Oath as “a Scout is reverent toward God. He is faithful in his religious duties. He respects the beliefs of others.”
Furthermore, to advance rank in Scouting, there are instances when a Scout must recognize his “duty to God.” For example:
- A Bobcat Scout (Cub Scouting) must make an oath to do their best when it comes to their “duty to God”, meaning “Put God first. Do what you know God wants you to do.”
- A Wolf Scout (Cub Scouting) is required to “talk to their parents about what they believe is their duty to God”, “give some ideas on how to practice and demonstrate [their] religious beliefs”, and “find out how [they] can help their church, synagogue, or religious fellowship.”
- A Bear Scout (Cub Scouting) is required to “practice [their] religion as [they] are taught in [their] home, church, synagogue, mosque, or other religious community” or “earn the religious emblem of [their] faith.”
- A Webelos Scout (Cub Scouting) is required to “earn the religious emblem of [their] faith” or two of the following: a.) “Attend the church, synagogue, mosque, or other religious organization of your choice, talk with your religious leader about your beliefs, and tell your family and Webelos den leader about what you learned.”; b.) “Tell how your religious beliefs fit in with the Scout Oath and Scout Law, Discuss this with your family and Webelos den leader: What character-building traits do your beliefs and the Scout Oath and Scout Law have in common?”; c.) “With your religious leader, discuss and write down two things you think will help you draw nearer to God. Do these things.”; d.) “Pray to God or meditate reverently each day as taught by your family, and by your church, synagogue, or religious group. Do this for at least one month.”; e.) “Under the direction of your religious leader, do an act of service for someone else. Talk about your service with your family and Webelos den leader. Tell them how it made you feel.”; or f.) “List at least two ways you believe you have lived according to your religious beliefs.”
- A First Class Scout (Boy Scouts) is required to lead their patrol in saying grace at meals.
- Second Class, First Class, Star, Life, and Eagle Scouts are required to “demonstrate the Scout spirit by living the Scout Oath and Scout Law in everyday life.”
While it does appear that there is an openness regarding faith (or lack thereof) in Scouting, there is not. The Boy Scouts of America has been frequently taken to court over its discriminatory policies toward those who are without religion, most notably in Randall v. Orange County Council, in which the Supreme Court of California ruled that established groups such as the Boy Scouts of America were not subject to provisions within the Unruh Civil Rights Act. Similar rulings were made in Seabourn v. Coronado Area Council and Welsh v. Boy Scouts of America.
The Boy Scouts of America stance on those that are without religion with has been, at least since 1985, that people who are agnostic or atheist were “incompatible” with the Scout Oath and the Scout Law. Similarly, since at least 1978, memorandums have circulated among national executive staff about homosexuals not being appropriate for leadership positions within the organization. In both of these instances, the Boy Scouts of America have publicly stated that these were not new policies that discriminated against agnostics, atheists, and homosexuals, but rather long-standing policies that had never been publicly challenged.
The resistance to homosexuality in Scouting is derived from the organization’s religious convictions. Since it is against the law in the United States to discriminate based on sexual orientation, the Boy Scouts of America has frequently hidden behind controversial bylaws in the First Amendment regarding freedom of association their private status. Since they are a religious enterprise, their stances on homosexuality most likely comes from Biblical passages such as “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination” (Leviticus 18:22, King James Version). The discrimination against gays in Scouting has been a long-standing tradition within the organization and was put on public display about fourteen years ago.
On June 28, 2000, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed a decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court that has determined the state’s public accommodations law required the Boy Scouts of America to reinstate Assistant Scoutmaster James Dale, who had made his homosexuality public in 1990 and was subsequently expelled from the organization. By a narrow 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that a private organization is allowed, under certain criteria, to exclude a person from membership through their First Amendment right to freedom of association, despite state anti-discrimination laws. Chief Justice William Reinquist’s majority relied heavily on Roberts v. United States Jaycees (1984), in which the Supreme Court said: “Consequently, we have long understood as implicit in the right to engage in activities protected by the First Amendment a corresponding right to associate with others in pursuit of a wide variety of political, social, economic, educational, religious, and cultural ends.” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a dissenting opinion with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, David Souter, and Stephen Breyer, observing that “every state law prohibiting discrimination is designed to replace prejudice with principle.” Stevens’ first point was that Scouting’s ban on homosexual members did not come from it’s original principles and he followed that assessment by stating that there wasn’t anything in the Boy Scout Handbook that made an inference to homosexuality directly.
The Boy Scouts of America seeks to instill “values” in young people, to basically prepare them to “make ethical choices over their lifetime in achieving their full potential.” The Scout Oath and the Scout Law are supposed to assist in the aforementioned values and ethical choices. Justice Stevens noted that terminology used in the Scout Oath and Scout Law (notably that a Scout is “clean” and “morally straight”) does not express a position on any sexual matter, including orientation.
I’m sure it’s safe to assume that the Boy Scouts of America’s former policies on homosexuality within its ranks are Biblical in nature. Granted, as of January 1, 2014, openly gay Scouts are allowed. Unfortunately for James Dale, and others, leadership positions are still off-limits to homosexuals.
I am a former Scout. Unfortunately for me, I left Scouting before I fully understood the discriminatory nature of the organization. As an adult, I don’t necessarily regret the time I spent in the Boy Scouts of America, but I find my feelings toward my involvement in the organization is like having ashes in my mouth. I learned a lot. I even learned things that I would consider to be appropriate values (such as being good toward others and helping the less fortunate), but even those lessons are now bitter-sweet for me. Despite Supreme Court decisions and technicalities that let the Boy Scouts of America operate on the fringes of what is legally and morally right, I do not look at the Boy Scouts of America as an organization that can be completely moral in nature, despite that being it’s mission statement and primary motivation for nearly everything they do.
The Boy Scouts of America is a religious institution, despite the many voices who claim it is not. They sanctify religion and have strict guidelines regarding the religious affiliation of its members. Leaders within the organization must have religion and the organization primarily serves and employs those who are religiously affiliated. The Boy Scouts of America is also a nonprofit organization under the Internal Revenue Code. It meets all of the criteria of a religious institution.
At the end of last year, my brother considered giving his Eagle Award back to the organization because of a fundamental disagreement with the Boy Scouts of America over its controversial tenants. I know that if I had made it that far, I would have given mine back as well.