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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