Elliott Welsh (eawelsh@AOL.COM)
Tue, 21 Sep 1993 21:20:27 EDT
I've been reading the mail for a week or two ( I know two or three of you
already from CompuServe, it turns out). I posted earlier, but apparently I
am seriously lacking in Internet addressing skills so the message went
nowhere <g>. If this should turn out to be a duplicate, please forgive me.
My son, Mark, and I are plaintiffs in a federal civil rights lawsuit against
BSA which arose when Mark and I were invited to participate in Tiger Cubs in
1989. The lawsuit recently reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where we recently
filed a motion (granted) for an extension of time to file a Writ of
Since I can imagine that this issue has been pretty much talked to death
already, I will only provide an account of the circumstances and the gist of
one of the arguments that BSA ought not to be permitted to recruit in public
grade-schools until or unless it refrains from discriminating against any
person on religious grounds.
Should anyone wish to discuss the case one-on-one, I will certainly oblige,
but I plan to limit any further postings to the list unless there is
considerable sentiment in favor of doing so. I have found that many folks on
Scouting forums prefer neither to think about nor discuss these issues
hoping, perhaps, that they will go away. I rather doubt that they will, as
they involve a great tension between Scouting's religious principles and its
principle of respect for the beliefs of others.
It is fairly easy to claim that Scouting honors both, but such a claim is not
particularly persuasive when one has been excluded from Scouting, having once
been an active member as I was.
I can only hope that you will try to read the following with an open mind:
Letter to a Public School Superintendent
The other day Mark, our fifth-grader, brought home another invitation to join
Scouts-the third such invitation handed him by various classroom teachers.
Mark would love to join Scouts, of course, because, as the invitation makes
in its list of events, from bowling parties, to model rocket launching, to
camporee," Scouting is fun.
Actually, Scouting can be much more. I am reminded of a sweltering summer
day nearly four decades ago when, at age thirteen, I impulsively blurted that
neighbor girl I had just seen moving in was very pretty. I don't remember
what response I expected from my mother, my grandmother and her friend, who
happened to be my seventh-grade English teacher, all quietly drinking iced
our backyard. There was just a very awkward pause. Then, from my English
teacher, "But they're Jewish!"
Never had I received a moral lesson more economically phrased. My teacher's
tone and inflection gave added weight to the words, and the combined
disapproval of all three adults was as unmistakable as it was stunning.
with this considerable array of moral authority in apparent unanimity, I
ashamed that I had somehow broken a rule I had never guessed existed.
Our church seemed to be silent on this issue, but another source of moral
authority was not: the Boy Scouts of America. I had been in Scouts some five
years. Scouting had taught me to ignore religious prejudice and to respect
conscientious beliefs of others. These and other ethical lessons, reinforced
working and playing alongside boys with differing beliefs and faiths, proved
convincing that, for me, the seeds of anti-Semitism never took root. In
when six-year-old Mark came home from school with an invitation to join Tiger
Cubs, I didn't hesitate to take him to the first meeting.
On meeting night in a school gymnasium a short walk from your office, I
discovered an altogether different kind of Boy Scouting. I really hadn't
much thought to the program's "duty to God" and, if I had, I would have
that a Cub Scout pack, meeting in a public school building and sponsored by
same parent-teacher organization Mark's mother belonged to, would, of course,
accommodate all boys in his public grade-school who wanted to join,
of belief with respect to religion. The flyer had said "any boy" could join,
Instead, I found myself being told by an earnest young Boy Scout official
agnostic families like ours were "not welcome" in Scouting. I quietly went
Mark and told him that I had made a mistake and that we would have to leave.
Blinking back his tears as we walked down the locker-lined corridor away from
the gym, Mark asked me why we had to leave.
The reasons, it turned out, were not very different from those my family and
teacher once used to rationalize their religious prejudice: Scouting
non-believers in much the same way anti-Semites stereotype Jews. In a 1961
speech at the International Conference of the Boy Scouts World Bureau,
Camp Chief John Thurman said, "...deliberately to allow into contact with the
militant agnostic, the declared atheist, or the middle-aged spiritual
is...unwarranted, unfair to boys and their parents, and a betrayal of Scout
principles." And, "[w]hy should a Movement like this set out to please an
agnostic or an atheist adult? Why should we allow him to contaminate (and I
the word deliberately) the efforts of tens of thousands of adults who accept
principles of Scouting...? Don't tell me that it is brotherly to countenance
In this defamatory caricature one is confronted by a threadbare theological
scarecrow-the same sort of ugly stereotype so common in anti-Semitic
literature. The atheist or agnostic who sets out to "contaminate" Scouting
every bit as real, of course, as the monsters which once adorned terra
on medieval maps. And it is absurd to presume that the agnostic suburban
a Unitarian perhaps, who brings his child to join Tiger Cubs because it is
advertised as a fun, wholesome, "absolutely nonsectarian" program, is "evil"
Nevertheless, the Boy Scouts of America maintains that it is obliged to
the very children it has invited to join, if their families happen not to
God. After all, Scouting's Declaration of Religious Principle claims that
a belief in God can one become the "best kind" of citizen. Scouting's
segregation is required, it says, to maintain its "high standards of
I cannot imagine that you would ever direct the teachers of our district to
a youth program which pointedly excluded (and implicitly questioned the
citizenship of) Jewish children because they cannot profess a belief in the
of Christ. Is "nonsectarian" Boy Scouting really any different, when it
children and parents on grounds of religious "standards" of character and
In the best of all possible worlds, Boy Scouting would purge itself of
prejudice and make clear that it welcomes and encourages the conscientious
beliefs of all boys, whether or not they happen to believe in God. The Girl
Scouts of the USA has welcomed all girls in this way for some time now and,
fact, may become a model organization in this regard. Included in GSUSA's
National Council Proposals this year is the following:
PROPOSAL 3: FLEXIBILITY IN WORDING FOR SPIRITUAL BELIEFS
IN THE GIRL SCOUT PROMISE.
"That since the Girl Scout organization makes no attempt to interpret or
word 'God' but encourages members to establish for themselves the nature of
their spiritual beliefs, it is the policy of Girl Scouts of the USA that
when making the Girl Scout Promise, may substitute wording appropriate to
own spiritual beliefs for the word 'God.'"
I look forward to a day when Mark might express his "duty to Conscience" as a
member of a Boy Scouts of America which did not practice or express religious
prejudice and bias. Until that day, I trust that his classroom teachers will
from handing him invitations from any organization which excludes any child
from participation on religious grounds. When teachers distribute
which purport, as does this year's Cub Scout flyer, to address "ALL BOYS IN
1ST THRU 5TH GRADES," surely "ALL BOYS" who want to participate ought to
be able to. This is far more than a matter of religious neutrality or equal
protection. It is, as the Boy Scouts taught me decades ago, ultimately a
of common decency.
Terry Howerton Sakima Group, Inc. SCOUTER Magazine Kansas City