Decision for Boy Scouts Setback for Humanists
by Margaret Downey
The following article is from the Secular
Humanist Bulletin, Volume 15, Number 3.
Seven years ago I filed a discrimination complaint against the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC). After a thorough investigation, the PHRC's legal department issued a
"Probable Cause" finding saying that, in its opinion, BSA are a public accommodation and as such violated the Pennsylvania Public Accommodations laws in rejecting my son and me because of our nontheist lifestance.
The PHRC requested that the BSA abide by the "Probable Cause" finding but the BSA refused. The BSA pressed for the matter to be reviewed by the commissioners assigned by the governor of Pennsylvania.
BSA contended that they were not a "public accommodation," but rather a
"private organization" shielded by freedom of association. In other words, for the last seven years, BSA has fought for the right to discriminate against nontheists.
To support its contention that they are a private organization, BSA paraded religious troop leaders who said they could not tolerate a nonreligious child in their midst, a sociologist who
opined—citing no scientific evidence—on the untoward effects nontheist participation would supposedly have on BSA, and various people who said they believe BSA to be based on religion.
My evidence proving that BSA is in fact open to the public consisted of recruitment flyers distributed in public schools, newspaper advertisements announcing
"open houses" and that "all boys" are invited, and handbills that had been posted in public places such as public libraries, supermarket bulletin boards, etc.
During the PHRC hearing, I also pointed out that BSA receive public money from the United Way's unallocated fund, that they hold a 501(c)3 tax-exemption, and that they hold a Congressional Charter. The Charter specifically says that the BSA is an educational organization teaching Scoutcraft. The Charter says absolutely nothing about religion being an integral part of the BSA. Most important, the Charter allows the BSA to receive government gratuities and protects the BSA from competition as a national youth organization.
Commissioner Raquel Otero de Yiengst, who heard the case presented at the Chester County Courthouse in May 1999, agreed with the PHRC's legal position, and recommended that the other eight commissioners rule that BSA is a public accommodation. On June 28, 1999, seven commissioners did the opposite. They voted that the BSA is a private organization and therefore not subject to the anti-discrimination laws of Pennsylvania. With only one other commissioner (Theotis Braddy) voting that BSA were an open-to-the-public organization, the PHRC held BSA to be private and dismissed my complaint. BSA declared a major victory.
A Tragic Turn
I was deeply saddened by this miscarriage of justice. I was sad for the nontheist community and I was sad for the BSA. I wanted to prove the obvious, namely that BSA is an open-to-the-public program. I wanted to establish once and for all that BSA should serve all boys regardless of their religious beliefs. The complaint I filed was my attempt to force BSA to abide by its own Congressional Charter and to step into the twenty-first century with pride and dignity. There is no pride or dignity associated with selective bigoted membership. The right to discriminate is shameful. The PHRC dismissal means that intolerance will continue to flourish at the hands of the world's largest youth group.
BSA now joins the ranks of disgraceful private clubs that promote bigotry and prejudice. Ethical members of the BSA should be appalled to know that an organization established to teach Scoutcraft is now promoting separatism and bigotry.
Now that the BSA hierarchy has proven that BSA is private and may exclude on religious grounds, they will suffer the consequences. Public monies and gratuities will no longer be available to benefit the boys. No longer can BSA accept public funding from the United Way's unallocated fund, maintain a 501(c)3 tax-exempt status, go into public schools to recruit, and accept government gratuities. BSA will have to rely solely on private donations. This will hurt the troops and the boys financially, which is not what I set out to do.
A private club that only serves certain sectors of the community is not eligible for special privileges. My worst fears have been realized. Religious zealots have seized control of BSA and they will destroy all that has been good with their fear and loathing toward the nonreligious community. The BSA PHRC victory is hollow.
The BSA will lose respect from people who hold dear the moral tenet of nondiscrimination. This ruling now makes it perfectly clear that the BSA's definition of purpose is to service only the religious community. It is a terrible loss of an opportunity to teach virtuous values such as tolerance, brotherhood, and reverence for one's fellow man to the religious as well as the nonreligious.
Over the last seven years BSA's hierarchy has attempted to promote fear and hatred toward the nontheist community. BSA distribute fund-raising letters claiming that
"special interest groups" are trying to take God out of Scouting. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nontheists simply wanted to say an oath that contained an additional
"o." We wanted to say an oath to "Good." This request would have imposed no burden on the Scouting program, and would have accommodated nontheist participation. Exposure to whatever religious activities Scouting programs might have was not objectionable to nontheists. What was objectionable was our rejection; sight unseen, ethical duties unknown, and potential for good citizenship unproven.
Recently BSA declared that Unitarian Scouts will no longer be eligible to receive Eagle Badges. Unitarian values do not fall in line with the BSA. Unitarians are too tolerant and too sympathetic toward gays, girls, and the godless. Discrimination within the BSA is getting worse. We will soon see BSA determining acceptable and unacceptable religions. This is a terrible thing to teach children. In America where diversity is honored, BSA shamelessly practice bigotry.
BSA has taken the low road and now marches to the same tune as right-wing fringe groups. It would have been far better for BSA to follow the high road to tolerance. On that road they would find great company. The Girl Scouts of America (GSA) took the lead six years ago and can proudly say they do not discriminate. GSA has not been harmed and young ladies are being taught by example that discrimination is wrong and un-American.
Hope for the Future
PHRC has given BSA the green light to decide who is good enough and why. Would you want your children taught morals by a group that promotes prejudice, intolerance, and separatism? I ask Scouting people everywhere, if you believe in discrimination, then against whom else will you discriminate?
There is only one way that people who love the Scouts can keep it from self-destruction. There needs to be a flood of protest from within the organization. Lone voices have been silenced by dismissal, but the time has come to bring BSA back into the mainstream and to demand its hierarchy to abide by Scout tenets of being kind, helpful, tolerant, friendly, and thrifty.
The groundswell has begun. A group of Eagle Scouts at Yale and Harvard University who find the BSA's discrimination policy reprehensible are organizing against BSA's religious-only membership policy. They are still glad they are Eagles, but this revelation that BSA aspires to be a narrow clique, imposing a religious test for membership, brings them shame.
Troop leaders who are embarrassed about BSA bigotry against gays and nontheists recently organized to form
"Scouting for All." Their Web site is www.scoutingforall.org. Their voices are being heard nationally and internationally.
I started the Anti-Discrimination Support Network (ADSN) in 1993 with the help of the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia. ADSN will continue working to bring BSA back to the people and out of the hands of religious zealots.
In the meantime, I find comfort knowing that my son and I keep good company. Some people who would be excluded from the Boy Scouts are: Albert Einstein, Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, Charles Darwin, Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, and many others whom we honor today for their contributions to humanity.
A recent study demonstrated that a large number of scientists do not believe in God. BSA's religious membership policy systematically excludes boys with the potential to become great men from participating and contributing to the program. This is a very sad day, indeed.
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