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Religious Tolerance logo

Boy Scouts of America (BSA)

BSA Continues Discrimination
Against Non-theists.

Part 5

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This topic is a continuation from the previous essay

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Summary:

For many decades. the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) had discriminated on the basis of:

More recently:

  • In early 2013, they modified their exclusionary policies slightly to allow gay youth into Scouting.

  • In 2015, they removed the national restriction banning gay adults as scout leaders.

  • In 2017-FEB, they allowed transgender boys to join. Members no longer have to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity.

However, non-theists of all ages remain excluded.

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Discrimination against Agnostics, Atheists, Humanists and other non-theists:

Many non-theists cannot ethically recite the Scout Oath because of its preamble which states:

"On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law." 1

The BSA's Charter and Bylaws" contains an "Article IX: Policies and Definitions" whose "Section 1. Declaration of Religious Principle, Clause 1" states very clearly the linkage between the BSA and belief in a very specific concept of God:

"The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member 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 and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing members. No matter what the religious faith of the members may be, this fundamental need of good citizenship should be kept before them. The Boy Scouts of America, 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 the organization or group with which the member is connected shall give definite attention to religious life." 2

The Declaration is internally inconsistent:

  • One one hand, it states very plainly that God is to be interpreted as a single male deity of infinite power, who delivers "favors and blessings" on any basis that he chooses. There is an implication that he monitors the daily activities of all humans rewards them according to their behavior.

  • On the other hand, it states that its approach to members' religious beliefs are "absolutely nonsectarian."

  • Finally, the "Special Considerations" section of the BSA web site states in Section 5.0.5.0 "Religious Principles" that:

    "The Boy Scouts of America does not define what constitutes belief in God or practice of religion. Neither does the BSA require membership in a religious organization or association for membership in the movement. If a Scout does not belong to a religious organization or association, then his parent(s) or guardian(s) will be considered responsible for his religious training. All that is required is the acknowledgment of belief in God as stated in the Scout Oath, and the ability to be reverent as stated in the Scout Law." 3

Yet:

  • Unitarian Universalists have no required belief in an omnipotent God. Many "UU's" are non-theists.

  • Deists teach that God created the universe and its laws, disappeared and has not been seen since; they do not believe in a God who actively controls the universe or monitors humans today.

  • The Buddhist religion has no concept of God in its foundational principles, and in many of its current faith groups.

  • Hinduism teaches the existence of millions of deities, both male and female.

  • Wicca and other Neopagan religions acknowledge the existence of both a God and a Goddess.

  • Many aboriginal religions, like Native American Spirituality. Vodun, and other polytheistic religions teach the existence of multiple deities.

The above faith groups teach beliefs that are incompatible with the single male God defined in Clause 1 of the BSA Charter's Declaration of Religious Principle. Yet members who follow these groups are allowed to join the BSA. At the very least, the BSA needs to clarify exactly what range of deities qualify to be recognized as "God."

When a Scout does not believe in a male God with the traditional attributes of omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, it can difficult to commit to doing one's duty towards what that Scout would consider a nonexistent mythical being. Some simply do not speak the phrase "to God" when they recite the Scout Oath. Others interpret "duty to God" as meaning that they have to follow the Ethic of Reciprocity, a.k.a. the Golden Rule. Still others have different ways of wiggling out of the obvious intent of the phrase. Some simply ignore it.

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Promoting change in the BSA towards non-theists:

We have been unable to detect major organizations having been formed specifically to fight this form of exclusion. However, several existing religious and philosophical groups have made comments in favor of allowing non-theists to become Scouts:

  • Austin Cline, writing for the Agnosticism/Atheism guide at About.com notes:

    "Official, institutional bigotry and discrimination against atheists used to be much more prevalent in America. ... Atheists today continue to encounter personal bigotry and resulting discrimination, but not so much in the context of social institutions enforcing official policies."

    "The biggest exception to this shift away from bigotry and towards equal treatment has been the Boy Scouts of America. Although the Boy Scouts' discrimination against gays appears to be most widely known, they discriminate against atheists on basically the same basis. According to the Boy Scouts, atheists cannot be morally straight or the best kinds of citizens; therefore, they have no place in the organization either as scouts or as adult leaders. People who admit to being atheists are kicked out regardless of their past accomplishments -- in other words, the amount of good a person has done either in their lives or in the Boy Scouts is less important than simply not believing in any gods. ..."

    "Many of the court cases challenging Boy Scouts' discrimination have been brought by atheists. It was just such a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court and established that the Boy Scouts are technically a private organization which has a right to discriminate against anyone they want and for any reason they want. The fallout from that decision is still developing: as a private organization that discriminates, they have no moral or legal claim to public assistance, support, or endorsement."

    "This outrages conservatives who want it both ways: they want the Boy Scouts to be private so they can in [sic] bigoted discrimination, but they want them to be public in order to obtain lucrative benefits and government support. In effect, they want the Boy Scouts' discrimination to come without social consequences. Their arguments end up trying to make the case that discrimination against gays and atheists is a positive public good which deserves public support." 4

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This topic is continued in the next essay.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "On My Honor," Boy Scouts of America, 2012, at: http://www.scouting.org/
  2. "Charter and Bylaws and Rules and Regulations of the Boy Scouts of America," Boy Scouts of America, 2011, at: http://www.scouting.org/
  3. "Special Considerations," Boy Scouts of America, 2011, at: http://www.scouting.org/
  4. "Boy Scouts must be prepared to fight Godless Atheism," About: Agnosticism/Atheism, undated, at: http://atheism.about.com
  5. Brian Shane & Mike Chalmers, "Boy Scouts Rule On Atheists Unchanged As BSA Reconsiders Ban On Gays," Huffington Post, 2013-JAN-29, at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/
  6. "Action Alert: Protest BSA's slap in the face to nontheists. BSA to keep discriminating against atheists," Freedom From Religious Foundation, 2013-JAN-23, at: http://ffrf.org/
  7. "18 Anti-Gay Groups and Their Propaganda," Southern Poverty Law Center, Intelligence Report, Issue #40, Winter 2010. Online at: http://www.splcenter.org/
  8. Chris Hill & Peter Sprigg, "Slippery slope to accepting atheist Boy Scouts: Column," USATODAY, 2013-MAY-25, at: http://www.usatoday.com/

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Copyright © 1999 to 2017 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. 
Originally published on 1999-AUG-9 
Rewritten: 2013-MAR-06
Author: B.A. Robinson

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