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Boy Scouts of America in Trouble over Religious Discrimination

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 14, Number 1.

Michael and William Randall were expelled from the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) in 1991 when they refused to take an oath to God. In a landmark case now before the California Supreme Court, the BSA is being charged with religious discrimination against the twin brothers. The California case reflects a growing campaign to end the BSA's policy of discrimination against nonreligious children and volunteers.

The California case hinges on Unruh Civil Rights Act, which prevents discrimination by businesses in the state. The BSA is not trying to deny that it practices discrimination. Instead it is claiming it is not a business and is thus exempt from California's anti-discrimination laws. BSA attorney Jon Davidson argued that the Scouts are entitled to an "unfettered ability to exclude whomever they want, on any basis." As well as its religious discrimination, the BSA discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation. The BSA is the defendant in another case under the Unruh Act for its exclusion of a Scout because he was gay.

As a result of temporary legal injunctions against the BSA, the Randall twins have been able to participate in their local Scout troop for the past six years. The twins are about to be considered for Eagle Scout badges, Scouting's highest rank. Former Scout troop leader James F. Meade has described the twins, now 16-year-olds, as "two of the finest young men that I had in that troop." He told the Los Angeles Times, "They exemplify all the Scouting virtues as far as I'm concerned."

A separate challenge against the Boy Scouts of America is being pursued by the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission. The Pennsylvania case was started by Margaret Downey, contributing editor of Secular Humanist Bulletin. Downey's son, Matthew Schottmiller, was denied a place in the Scouts because he refused to take an oath to God. In January 1996, after four years of investigation, the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission found "probable cause" against the BSA. Because the Boy Scouts failed to resolve the matter, the Human Rights Commission is now placing the discrimination complaint on the docket for a public hearing.

Downey believes the BSA's arguments in the California and Pennsylvania cases reveal its increasing desperation. "The Boy Scouts are tying themselves in knots as they try to avoid federal and state anti-discrimination laws," commented Downey. "When it suits them, they claim they are a private business, but in California now they are claiming they are not a business. In Pennsylvania they claim they are like a religious organization and can therefore exclude people with different religious beliefs. But if they are a religious organization, the First Amendment separation of church and state means they should lose their Congressional Charter, they should lose their 501(c)3 tax-exempt status, and they should be prohibited from recruiting in public schools."

Already in 1998, the city of Chicago has agreed to end its sponsorship of 28 Scout programs. The city was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union on the grounds that government sponsorship of the Scouts violated the separation of church and state. The city settled the case by agreeing to sever all ties to the Boy Scouts as long as the organization continues to discriminate on the basis of religious belief and sexual orientation.

Scout associations in several other countries do not require children to make an oath to God. And in 1993, the Girl Scouts of America changed its oath policy so that nonreligious girls would be able to join. In contrast to this international trend toward greater inclusiveness, the Boy Scouts of America has made belief in a monotheistic God a central principle of its work. The BSA's "Declaration of Religious Principle" states that noone "can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God ... 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."

Downey's experience with the Boy Scouts led her to establish the Anti-Discrimination Support Network. Working with children who have suffered at the hands of the BSA has made Downey a strong critic of America's largest youth organization. "The Boy Scouts claim to be helping to solve some of the social and moral problems that America faces. Yet the Scouts insist on punishing children because they have the integrity to admit their doubts in religious doctrine. Surely they are breaking one of the most basic moral principles - `it is wrong to harm a child.' Until they stop treating our children as second-class citizens, the Boy Scouts will be part of the problem not part of the solution."

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This page was last updated 12/04/2003

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