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Boy Scouts of America (BSA)

The BSA and the Unitarian Universalists.
The BSA and the federal government.

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The BSA and the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA):

The relationship between the UUA and the BSA has been strained. That is to be expected because there is a strong thread of religious conservatism running through the BSA, whereas the UUA is generally regarded as more progressive than even the most liberal Christian denominations in the U.S. -- the United Church of Christ, and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

  • In 1992, the UUA Board of Trustees passed a resolution opposing the BSA's anti-Agnostic, anti-Atheist, and anti-gay policies.

  • In 1993, the UUA revised its Religion in Life award manual to include information on their position on these matters.

Some Scouts wear the Religion in Life religious emblem on their uniform. They obtained permission to show this emblem by completing a course given by their faith group. The BSA has recognized courses in religion given by the Baha'i Faith, by Buddhist, Islamic, Jewish, Unitarian Universalist, Zoroastrian religious groups, and by dozens of denominations within Christianity.

In 1998-MAY, the BSA triggered a sudden crisis by sending a letter to the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) announcing that the UUA could no longer award its religious emblems to its Boy Scouts. In addition, no Unitarian Universalist Boy Scout was allowed to wear his previously earned emblem. Their Religious Relations Committee objected to two references in the 1993 edition of the UUA Religion in Life manual:

  • One mentioned that individual UU youth might have difficulty with the Boy Scout oath which pledges duty to God. Many UUs are Agnostics (undecided whether God exists) or Atheists (do not believe that God exists, or have no belief about God). Pledging duty to God implies an acceptance that God exists. The UUA does not require its members to hold specific beliefs about the nature or existence of any deity or deities. A 1997 survey of almost 10,000 adult UUs showed that about half identified themselves as either Humanists or Buddhists, and had no belief in God. The beliefs among UU Boy Scouts is probably similar.

  • The other reference was a reprint of a 1992 UUA General Assembly resolution which disapproved of the BSA policy which bars persons with a homosexual orientation from membership. (The UUA had withdrawn from the BSA movement in 1992; however, many individual UUA congregations still sponsored troops and many UU youth were members of troops sponsored by other organizations). The manual referred to an "ongoing concern regarding the homophobic and discriminatory attitudes of the national leadership of the Boy Scouts of America"

The UUA initially refused to modify its manual, because such an action would violate its "First Principle" which declares that all people have equal worth and dignity. The Rev. John A. Buehrens, then president of the UUA at the time commented:

"I think I would encourage people to understand that teaching kids to treat others with fairness, teaching kids not to discriminate just on the basis of someone belonging to a particular group, requires the stand we have taken vis-à-vis the Boy Scouts." 1

Many Unitarian Universalist Scouts continued to wear their "Religion in Life" and "Love and Help" emblems in defiance of the BSA prohibition.

Following a compromise reached at a meeting on 1998-SEP-29 between the BSA and UUA, the UUA made a complete revision to its course material. This was submitted to the BSA in advance of its Religious Relationships Committee meeting of 1999-FEB-11. The clauses that the BSA found offensive had been removed. After some additional changes requested by the BSA, the Religious Relationships Committee endorsed the new course on 1999-APR-23.

However, the compromise fell apart a few weeks later, over supplementary material which the UUA provided with its Religion in Life packet: 

  • a letter from the  President Buehrens which mentions that the UUA will continue to award the Religion in Life emblem even if the BSA disapproves.

  • a pamphlet also written by Buehrens entitled "When Others (Or You) Say 'God'." This addresses the topic of religious pluralism. 2

  • a pamphlet written by Keith Kron entitled "In Support of All People." This outlines UUA support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people (LGBT). 

The BSA cried foul, claiming that the supplementary material had not been mentioned in the earlier negotiations. 3 However the UUA president contended that he had previously told two BSA senior officials about the material. 

The basic conflict between the two organizations continues to this day. The BSA teaches that both homosexual behavior and sexual orientation is incompatible with the "morally straight" clause of the Scout Oath, and that an oath to God must be taken by every member. Most UUA members believe that:

  • All three sexual orientations -- heterosexuality, bisexuality and homosexuality are morally neutral;
  • Any sexual behavior is sinful if it is coercive, unsafe, manipulative, or nonconsensual.
  • Homophobia, not a homosexual orientation, is sinful;

The UUA later entered into negations with the BSA to be represented on the BSA Religious Relationships Committee. They commented that:

  • a large number of young Unitarian Universalists have been involved in Scouting.

  • the BSA "will need counsel from groups like the UUA -- not just from religious conservatives --- [to help it adapt to] the religious pluralism of the 21st century." BSA will also need to change in order to avoid future court challenges to its religious discrimination policies.

  • "Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation should not be allowed to continue as a national policy of the BSA. It will ruin the organization, costing them the support of millions of people, of foundations, and of the United Way in many areas." 2

In 2004-FEB, the Unitarian Universalist Scouters Organization -- a semi-autonomous group -- entered into an agreement with the BSA. It says in part that the UUSO:

"... will work with each other within the rules and regulations of the Boy Scouts of America to establish and nurture Scout units as an expression of the mission of the Unitarian Universalist Scouts Organization, Inc. and to administer a religious emblems program for Unitarian youth and adults so that they may grow in character, citizenship, responsibility, and with the personal fitness necessary to achieve their greatest potential." 4,5

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The BSA and the U.S. federal government:

  • 2000-JUL-19: Representatives Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) and six other sponsors introduced the House bill "Scouting for All Act" H.R. 4892. This bill would have repealed the 1916 federal charter of the Boy Scouts of America. It notes that:
    "Federal charters are prestigious distinctions awarded to organizations with a patriotic, charitable, or educational purpose" and that charters imply "Government support for such organizations." It recognizes that "Although the Boy Scouts of America promotes the social and civic development of young boys through mentoring, it also sets an example of intolerance through its discriminatory policy regarding sexual orientation." It concludes that "A policy of excluding homosexuals is contradictory to the Federal Government's support for diversity and tolerance and should not be condoned as patriotic, charitable, or educational."
    The bill was referred to the House Committee on Judiciary on JUL-19, and to the Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims on JUL-25. On SEP-12, it was debated and rejected by a vote of the House: 362 to 12, with 51 abstentions.

  • 2000-JUL-27: Representative Steve Buyer (R-IN) introduced a concurrent resolution H.CON. RES. 384 titled: "Recognizing the Boy Scouts of America for the public service it performs through its contributions to the lives of the Nation's boys and young men." There were no co-sponsors. The resolution recognizes that the BSA provides:
    "... an educational program for boys and young men to build character, train in the responsibilities of participatory citizenship, and develop personal fitness. [It also] teaches the core values of duty to God and country, personal honor, respect for the beliefs of others, volunteerism, and interdependence with the environment, principles which are conducive to good character, citizenship, and health." The BSA "is a model for inclusiveness, with 6 million boys and young men from every ethnic, religious, and economic background, including those with disabilities and special needs, participating in scouting programs across the United States."
    No mention was made in the resolution concerning the BSA's refusal to allow gays, Atheists, Agnostics, and other non-theistic youths to join. On JUL-27, the bill was referred to the House Committee on Judiciary. On AUG-8, it was referred to the Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims. The bill did not proceed.

  • 2000-SEP-18: According to Focus on the Family, a fundamentalist Christian organization:
    "Rep. John Shadegg, (R-TN), has pledged to offer counter-legislation that would specifically prohibit the federal government from denying or withdrawing access to public property to the Boy Scouts. The bill would also prevent the government from withdrawing or otherwise punishing the Boy Scouts, or from expending funds to compel the Boy Scouts to accept any given set of beliefs." 6
  • 2001-FEB-14: Steve Buyer reintroduced his year 2000 bill. It also died.

  • 2006-APR-24: The Boy Scouts of America Equal Access Act went into effect. The law was passed earlier by Congress as an amendment to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001.

    Some public school districts refuse to rent facilities to groups that discriminate against persons on the basis of their gender, religion, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, disability status, etc. Some had refused to make their facilities available to the BSA because the Scouts actively discriminate against individuals on any of three grounds. Since the 1970's they refer to their exclusionary policies as the "3 G's:", Gays, the Godless and Girls. 7

    In order to protect the right of the BSA to continue this widespread discrimination, the U.S. Congress passed a bill which has the potential of withholding public school funding from public elementary schools, public secondary schools, local educational agencies (LEA), or State educational agencies (SEA) that have "... a designated open forum or limited public forum and that receives funds made available through the Department of Education if their policy of non-discrimination results in banning of Boy Scouts from using their facilities." 7

    So:
    • The BSA actively discriminates against youth who fall into any of three categories: sexual orientation, religion, or gender;
    • A school with anti-discrimination policies would normally prohibit the BSA from using their facilities.
    • Congress comes to the defense of the BSA's right to discriminate.
    • The BSA Equal Access Act threatens such schools with loss of funding because if it doesn't want to cooperate with discriminatory groups.

    This act would seem to violate multiple clauses in the U.S. Constitution concerning equal protection of individuals.

But it gets worse: "This Act directs the Secretary of Education, through the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), to ensure compliance with this new law." 8 So, the OCR which was created to protect the human rights of students is given the responsibility to help the BSA discriminate against those same individuals. What a strange inversion of values!

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Related essays on this site:

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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. Gustav Niebuhr, "Unitarians are disputing Boy Scouts on emblems," New York Times, 1998-AUG-1. See http://www.uua.org/
  2. The term "pluralism" is ambiguous. It is sometimes used to refer to religious diversity. Other times, it refers to the belief that all religions are true.
  3. Chuck Colbert, "Unitarians and the Boy Scouts' "sin" of homophobia," In Newsweekly, 1999-MAY-26. Online at: http://www.uua.org/
  4. "Are the UUSO religious emblems endorsed by the Boy Scouts of America?," Unitarian Universalist Scouters Organization, at: http://www.uuscouters.org/
  5. "Memorandum of Mutual Support," U U Scouters, 2004-FEB, at: http://www.uuscouters.org/
  6. Martha Kleder, "Lawmakers rise to support Scouts," at: http://www.family.org/
  7. "Exclusionary practices & policies of the Boy Scouts of America," BSA-Discrimination, at: http://www.bsa-discrimination.org/
  8. "34 CFR Parts 75, 76, and 108," Department of Education, at: http://www2.ed.gov/

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Copyright © 1999 to 2012, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. 
Originally published on 1999-AUG-9 
Latest updated: 2012-JUL-20
Author: B.A. Robinson
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