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Scouting and Sin

[This article first appeared in the January 1992 issue of Chronicles.]

The Case Against the Boy Scouts

The Boy Scouts of America have recently been accused of sins against Democracy, in the form of discrimination against atheists, homosexuals, and women. Four recent lawsuits have challenged the organizational prerogatives of the Scouts. The families of nine-year-old twins Michael and William Randall of Anaheim, California, and eight-year-old Mark Welsh of Chicago are suing to get their youngsters admitted as Cub Scouts without the boys having professed a belief in a Supreme Being. In Los Angeles, the case arising from the 1980 dismissal of Tom Curran, a homosexual, from his position as Scoutmaster, remains active. Last July a contingent from the militant group "Queer Nation" besieged a Scout office in San Francisco in an attempt to register as Scoutmasters. Queer Nation spokesman Stephen Morgan declared, "The Boy Scouts are in need of the positive influence of gay role models."

Margo Mankes, an eight-year-old Florida girl who had been accepted as an informal member of a Cub Scout pack, has been ordered out by a regional Scout Council. Miss Mankes responded by going to Circuit Court to plead for a chance to attend Scout camp. Her cause made good copy and attracted the services of attorney Mark Rubin. Mankes and Rubin, along with Curran, appeared on CNN's Larry King Live last July 10—Curran to celebrate the fact that a California court has declared the Boy Scouts to be a public entity and thus liable to civil rights laws, Rubin to deploy potted platitudes about "justice" and "equality," and Mankes to serve as a sympathetic prop.

The contours of this controversy are wearily familiar to students of the political-correctness plague. Not all commentators, however, see this simple truth. Michael Hinds of the New York Times insists, "This is not a dispute over political correctness. The dissidents are not trying to alter the program of skills and homey virtues that the Scouts have taught to four generations of American boys. Rather, they simply want to join the organization, and the Scouts do not want them."

Hinds is, at best, disingenuous. Compelling the Scouts to modify their admission and membership policies would result in the death of the organization through the redefinition of its mission. Forcing the Scouts into gender "integration" would destroy the organization's distinctiveness, and make the Girl Scouts redundant. (Significantly, on the Larry King show Miss Mankes said that she would be satisfied if the Girl Scouts would make some changes in their selection of activities. Rubin blanched at this unprovoked display of reasonableness on the part of his client.) Compelling the Scouts to hire homosexual Scoutmasters would exacerbate the problem the organization has with parents and sponsors worried about child abuse. Moreover, making the Scouts abandon their religious requirement (this has been a pet project of the American Atheists for many years) would invalidate a founding tenet of the organization.

Article IX of the Scout bylaws asserts, "The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God." This obligation is codified in the Scout Oath and the Scout Law, which are dutifully recited at every Scout meeting. The Scouts are scrupulously nonsectarian in applying the religious requirement: clause three of Article IX maintains that "In no case where a unit is connected with a Church or other distinctively religious organization shall members of other denominations or faiths be required, because of their membership in the unit, to take part in or observe a religious ceremony distinctly peculiar to that organization or church."

An atheist Scout would thus be excused from any religious functions incidental to his membership in a unit—but he couldn't avoid the Scout Oath. Recognition of a Scout's duty to God is fundamental to the mission of Scouting. It is true, as Mr. Hinds says, that dissidents aren't trying to "alter the program" of Scouting. Their objective is more comprehensive—the transformation of Scouting into a completely secular entity.

Mark Welsh, the young atheist from Chicago, is a second-generation malcontent. His father, Elliot Welsh, declared himself a Conscientious Objector in 1970 on "ethical" rather than religious grounds. The Supreme Court found in favor of Welsh, thereby imposing a rather drastic reform upon the military. It is difficult to believe that Mark Welsh is acting on his own initiative; it is more likely that his father, much like insufferable Little League parents who use their child athletes as proxies, has used his son as a political surrogate.

In addition to the courts, the Scouts are vulnerable to two avenues of attack. The first runs through Congress. Section VIII of the 1915 act that incorporated the Scouts requires the organization to "make and transmit to Congress a report of its proceedings" every year on or before April 1. Not many in Congress are likely to discern any political advantage in beating up on Scouting, but the idea of making the Scouts more "inclusive" has taken hold among the "chattering classes." The United Way of America represents a second vulnerability to the Scouts. Donations from the United Way constitute approximately 25 percent of the organization's annual budget. The United Way advises its local chapters not to contribute to organizations that discriminate on the basis of race, color, creed, sex, or national origin. The United Way chapter in DeKalb County, Illinois, cited unspecified discrimination in its decision to deny funding to the local Scouts council. The national United Way organization has neither condemned nor commended the action of the DeKalb chapter and has refused to comment about the worthiness of the Scouts for future contributions until present and pending litigation is settled. If any of the current discrimination suits are resolved against the Scouts, they could confront the loss of United Way funds.

The United Way has already extracted a significant concession from the Scouts. In early August came an announcement that an adjunct program to Scouting entitled "Learning for Life" would be offered in public schools. The Scouts insisted that the program had been in development for quite a while, and that its original purpose was to provide specialized instruction for inner-city youth. However, the program has been opened to atheists, homosexuals, and young women; this decision has apparently resolved a dispute over a nine thousand dollar United Way grant that had been withheld because of "discrimination."

Predictably, this concession appears to be begetting demands for further appeasement. The Bay Area branch of United Way, which had held up the grant, has pronounced that the new program represents a good "first step." Other critics of the Scouts are even less satisfied with the new arrangement. Lynn Hect Schafran of the NOW Legal Defense Fund complains that by including girls in the "Learning for Life" program, "The Boy Scouts are lumping girls together with society's most marginalized citizens into a club that could be called Tariahs Unlimited.'" The liberal refrain was not surprising: the alternative program is improper, because "separate is inherently unconstitutional."

But the United Way presents just one horn of Scouting's financial dilemma. The other horn comes in the form of a threat from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Roman Catholic Church. These two denominations sustain over one quarter of all Scouts troops in America. They have announced their intention to withdraw their support from the Boy Scouts of America if the organization changes its policy regarding homosexual Scoutmasters.

The Mormon Church organized the first American Scouting Council in 1913. If the Church decided to withdraw from the national Scouting body, it would be in a good position to inaugurate an independent organization. In Utah, where the Church has its base, between 95 and 98 percent of all Scouts are Mormon. The four Utah Scout Councils receive a negligible amount from the United Way; one of them, the Utah National Parks Council, stopped receiving United Way funds in 1985. The financial assets of the Mormon Church probably outstrip those of any other American denomination. If the Mormons, Catholics, and other religious traditionalists left Scouting, they could conceivably take Scouting with them.

"Progressives" in Utah, perhaps sensing this possibility, have taken up the cudgels against both the Scouts and the Mormon Church. In a Salt Lake Tribune story published on June 26, Chris Allen, director of the Utah chapter of the American Atheists (Madalyn O'Hair's organization), condemned the Scouts for "bigotry" against atheists, homosexuals, and girls. "We don't like the idea of their teaching their standards in the public schools. I'm sure you could talk to the Aryan Nations and the KKK and they could talk of their high moral values." Allen described the influence of the Mormon and Roman Catholic churches as a conspiracy to impose a "Civil Religion" upon America through Scouting, and insisted that the use of Scouting to promote religious values is "un-American" and a violation of the principle of the separation of church and state.

The American Atheists use their literature and gatherings to propagate hatred for religion and religious people (albeit with admirable evenhandedness among faiths and denominations); accordingly, the group is in a poor position to complain about bigotry. One might dismiss Allen's fulminations as the grumbling of a marginalized crank, but four days after the interview appeared the Tribune—Utah's second largest daily—gentrified Allen's opinions in a house editorial.

The Tribune editorial was headlined, "Boy Scouts should join America in welcoming greater Diversity." The piece was a sanitized, "compassionate" retread of Allen's charge of "un-Americanism." It obliquely condemned the Mormon and Catholic churches for threatening to withdraw from Scouting and then urged local chapters of the United Way to withdraw financial support from Scouting, averring that their funds "might be better spent on organizations that benefit a broader spectrum of the American population." (Atheists, by the most generous reckoning, comprise about 7 percent of the population, homosexuals less than 5 percent. Presumably these groups overlap. Girls have a Scouting program of their own. Clearly the Boy Scouts, as presently constituted, are representative of the "broad spectrum" of American society.) The Tribune cheerfully anticipates the day when "Scout affiliation with the public schools . . . might open the door to government intervention in membership policy." State intervention would liberate the Scouts from the "hidebound tradition" that keeps the organization "exclusively male and predominantly Christian." Once broken to the state's saddle, the Scouts would take their place among the enlightened "government, business, social, and civic organizations . . . that welcome, rather than deny, diversity."

There are those of us who maintain that it is perversity, rather than diversity, that the Scouts reject. Gently, but insistently, the Tribune scolded us: "The ban on homosexual scoutmasters is based upon the unfair generalization that all homosexuals pose a threat to the privacy and healthy sexual development of youngsters. Not all homosexuals are pedophiles or inclined to 'recruit' boys to their ranks." Actually, the ban is based upon two eminently sensible considerations. The first is the moral judgment that homosexuality is wrong and depraved. The second consideration is this: although "not all" homosexuals are predatory, the Boy Scouts cannot afford to play sodomy roulette.

Over the past five years the Scouts, who receive annual revenues of about ninety million dollars, have been ordered to pay approximately fifteen million dollars in damages resulting from sexual abuse complaints. About sixty cases of abuse are reported each year, in spite of the rigorous screening to which the Scouts submit applicants for leadership posts. Imagine the litigation explosion that could result if representatives of the Queer Nation (or the North American Man-Boy Love Association), eager to teach youngsters about the "positive aspects" of homosexuality, were given stewardship over Scouts units.

There are signs that some Scouts have already been reeducated. Paul Hudson, an 18-year-old Scout, has successfully demanded that Scout units in the South excise the Confederate flag from its insignias and refrain from displaying it during Scout gatherings. Hudson, a young white man who claims Southern ancestry reaching back three centuries, explains that he believes the use of the Confederate flag may discourage black youths from participating in Scouting. "The [number of times] the Confederate flag is shown during [Scouting] events is very prominent," complains Hudson. "No one's wearing white hoods on their heads, but it almost looks like a resegregation rally or something."

It remains unclear whether those Scouting units from the several states whose state flags incorporate the Confederate flag will have to accommodate Hudson's demands.

[Image via Karen Arnold from Pixabay]

William Grigg

William Grigg is a journalist living in Appleton, Wisconsin.

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