It’s time to revoke the Boy Scouts’ congressional charter

Last week, the Boy Scouts of America announced that they would allow gay troop leaders, following up on their previous decision to accept gay scouts. It was a major victory for the LGBT community, the culmination of years of advocacy that sends a message to millions of children that being gay isn’t a valid reason to exclude someone from a group.

It’s a fantastic development. However, as Rachel Witkin at The New Civil Rights Movement pointed out, last week’s victory is incomplete. And as numerous other observers pointed out when the organization decided to allow gay scouts, that victory was similarly incomplete. While becoming more (if not completely) LGBT inclusive is a major step forward, the Boy Scouts still remain officially off-limits to America’s fastest-growing cultural minority: The Boy Scouts still bans nonbelievers.

As the Scouts’ membership application reads, in an excerpt from its Declaration of Religious Principle that, ironically, appears directly above its non-discrimination clause:

The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God and, therefore, recognizes the religious element in the training of the member, but it is absolutely nonsectarian in its attitude toward that religious training. Its policy is that the home and organization or group with which the member is connected shall give definite attention to religious life. Only persons willing to subscribe to these precepts of the Declaration of Religious Principle and to the Bylaws and codes of the Boy Scouts of America shall be entitled to certificates of membership.

The Scout Oath of Promise, also included on the application, outlines “duty to God” as the first commitment of being a scout — ahead of duty to country and obedience to Scout Law, the twelfth point of which further defines a scout as: “Reverent. A Scout is reverent toward God. He is faithful in his religious duties. He respects the beliefs of others.”

Over 70 percent of Boy Scout troops are chartered by religious organizations, with a clear plurality of organizations and overall membership associated with the Mormon Church (which threatened to leave the organization following the vote to allow gay troop leaders). Atheist scouts have also been expelled from the organization — in at least one case after having already received Eagle Scout honors — over their refusal to acknowledge the existence of a supreme being.

By establishing themselves as non-sectarian, the Boy Scouts avoid charges of inter-religious discrimination, which the public commonly understands to be the only kind of religious discrimination. This qualification is made explicit in the Program Policies section of the application, which clarifies that “members who do not belong to a unit’s religious chartered organization shall not be required to participate in its religious activities.” So long, of course, as members are religious to begin with. After all, they declared their faith when they applied for membership.

George Bush addresses the Boy Scouts' National Jamboree in 2005, via Wikimedia Commons

George Bush addresses the Boy Scouts’ National Jamboree, via Wikimedia Commons

Under this policy, a Jewish child can join a Mormon troop and be exempted from participating in scout activities that are specific to the Mormon faith, but an atheist child can’t join any troop at all. The implication is that because the organization allows Christians and Jews and Muslims, and doesn’t force any of them to take part in any specific religious activity (so long as they all are in some way religious), it isn’t discriminating on the basis of religious belief. Defining unbelievers as un-American somehow doesn’t count.

If the Scouts were a completely private organization, its insistence that good citizenship requires religious belief and practice would be perfectly kosher. However, as the Freedom From Religion Foundation pointed out in a statement following the Scouts’ decision to accept gay troop leaders, the Scouts hold a congressional charter as a “Title 36” civic group, and that’s a problem. Title 36 groups are a list of “patriotic and national organizations,” which enjoy both government recognition and exemption from certain business regulations. By conferring this status on an explicitly religious organization, the government has given them privileges they do not deserve — the Scouts originally sought their charter in the early 1900s as protection from antitrust laws — endorsing the establishment of religion when it clearly shouldn’t.

Other organizations that hold similar Title 36 charters include the Girls Scouts of America (which remains officially religious, but amended its policies in 1993 to allow non-believers), Little League Baseball, Big Brother Big Sister, American Legion and the National Academy of Sciences.

If the Scouts insist — as they do — that non-believers cannot be model American citizens, then they should have this charter revoked. They can discriminate against non-believers, or they can have federal recognition and privilege, but it’s time for them to choose.

To be clear, the Boy Scouts aren’t the only religious organization with a Title 36 charter. For instance, the Jewish War Veterans of America holds a similar status, going beyond the Boy Scouts’ religious requirement to specify a particular religious affiliation for membership. The Military Chaplains Organization also holds a Title 36 charter, despite James Madison’s adamant assertion that religious leaders had no place in the American military. So it would seem that revoking the Boy Scouts’ charter would require revoking a host of similar charters, setting off a legal fight with a host of interest groups that the public holds in high esteem. After all, that’s why they were given civic group charters in the first place.

However, the Boy Scouts are the only organization with a Title 36 charter that describes religious affiliation as being part and parcel with desirable American citizenship. The Jewish War Veterans of America makes no such claim. Furthermore, the Boy Scouts of America is a national institution in a way that The Jewish War Veterans of America simply isn’t, directly involving itself in the lives of millions of children and teenagers every year. For the government to endorse an organization that not only tells children that non-believers are by definition less American than they are, but makes an affirmation of that principle a requirement for membership, is unacceptable.

Part of me wants to argue that the Scouts should change, that they should accept non-believers into their ranks as they recently accepted gay scouts and troop leaders. But another part of me thinks that such a shift can only be made in bad faith. The scouts are excluding nonbelievers for a different, more fundamental reason than they excluded gays, making acceptance both less likely for them and less desirable for me.

The arguments the Scouts raised against gay members were based in empirical claims, namely that gay people are pedophiles, that could be clearly demonstrated as hateful and false. And once enough people got together to point out that maintaining by-laws based on baseless, hateful claims was, well, baseless and hateful, the case was more or less settled.

But the Boy Scouts’ argument against admitting non-believers is a metaphysical one, namely that you can’t be moral without belief in God. Scout Law didn’t specify being straight; it does specify being religious. Therefore, calling on the Scouts to admit non-believers would entail more than having them admit they were wrong, and it would require them to change more than their by-laws; it would require them to change a fundamental aspect of their identity as an organization. They would have to redefine the kind of person they say scouts should aspire to be.

The Scouts could accept gay scouts and still be the Scouts. The Scouts might not be able to accept non-believing scouts and still be the Scouts. This may be one of the reasons, among others, why the Human Rights Campaign — with its Religion and Faith Program — declined to push for the organization to allow non-believers, even as it campaigned for the inclusion of gays.

So no, I don’t think the Boy Scouts should remove the religious test from their membership requirements if they don’t want to remove it on their own. If they insist on remaining a religious organization that’s their prerogative, and I wouldn’t have them any more than they would have me.

But if that’s how it’s going to be, then they can’t have our government, either.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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17 Responses to “It’s time to revoke the Boy Scouts’ congressional charter”

  1. Andrew P. Evans says:

    Why don’t more people point out the BSA’s discrimination against indigenous peoples in the form of cultural appropriation (encouraging dressing up like pretend Indians)?

  2. DB01 says:

    Ban you. You dumb F**K Qu**r, tranny loving freak.

  3. Rick Nolte says:

    Spent many years in scouts, starting as a cub scout all the way through to eagle. Never once prayed during our meetings and I cannot recall it ever being a religious experience.
    Citing ONE case of a non-believer being removed is hardly an epidemic. My guess is the religious aspect varies from troop to troop based on the members and leaders of that specific troop.
    Of course you are going to have right wing extremists involved somewhere along the way. All you have to do is read the daily news or comments after the articles to see that there is still a lot of hate in this world.

  4. Bob Munck says:

    The Boy Scouts still bans nonbelievers.

    Not successfully. I was a Cub Scout, Boy Scout, and Explorer in Kansas, Texas, and Pennsylvania while expressing my disbelief loudly.

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  6. Gustav Wind says:

    Shouldn’t sovereign citizens be allowed to freely associate with those of their choosing? If you don’t like the BSA rules of membership, make your own organization. Don’t undermine an organization that has provided fraternity for a century. Such pettiness and selfishness from the libraligarchy.

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  8. infidel1000 says:

    Exactly. I never joined the BS. But I never joined the KKK, either.

  9. George T says:

    BeccaM: 100% with you. The standing counter-argument that the “god” is referencing deities of all religions or a creative force in the universe is a disingenuous claim. Everybody really recognizes it as an invocation of the Christian god in opposition to the “godless commies” in the USSR. Well, that nation is gone so why are we still using this as our official motto? I prefer our original E PLURIBUS UNUM motto, so I had a stamp made to cross out the current one and print this under it.

  10. Brian Westley says:

    The arguments the Scouts raised against gay members were based in empirical claims, namely that gay people are pedophiles,

    No, they were very careful to never use this argument in court. The argument they always used was that the BSA didn’t consider gays to be “morally straight” or “clean” and that they weren’t good role models. “Gays as pedophiles” was always the main subtext, but not as a legal reason.

  11. Indigo says:

    Actually, it’s a typo and now corrected. The sly innuendo actually works but the Scouts are not addressing that issue right now.

  12. Rob McClain says:

    Isn’t it amazing how the religious get to bake their cake, have their cake, and eat their cake while screaming about being persecuted in this country?

  13. Rob McClain says:

    I was trying to decide if Canon was a typo or just a really clever way of digging at their religious foundations.

  14. Kenneth Nahigian says:

    Great piece, Jon. As a private group divorced from government, the BSA would be able to do as it wishes, discriminate as it wishes, be pro- or anti-Christian, or neutral in matters of faith. Dare we imagine a society where government does only what it should do, protect citizens from fraud and violence, and not insert its cuttlefish tendrils into every aspect of life?

  15. BeccaM says:

    It’s also long past time to remove ‘In God We Trust’ from currency and ‘one nation, under God’ from the already disturbingly fascist pledge of allegiance.

    One of the problems here in America is despite many laws and even constitutionally-based restrictions being self-evident, all three branches of our government will ignore them when they feel like it.

  16. 2karmanot says:

    Duffering indeed!

  17. Indigo says:

    Once more into the struggle, why the Boy Scouts? All I see there is self-righteous sputtering, veiling the extremely obvious tactic of setting up innocent boys to be canon fodder. The entire rigamarole of scouting is farce. Call it what it is, recruiting for the American Mercenary Army. It’s a relic of the 19th century, a pompous Victorian play, complete with ribbons and strutting in uniforms, and entirely obsolete. Piece meal criticisms are empowering to that nonsense, keeping it going, keeping it fussing and defending itself like a crazed old Victorian bachelor collecting buttons. Call for its abolition if you want to talk about it. Otherwise, let it duffer on, entirely ignored.

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