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Faith & Values

The Boy Scouts of America has finally agreed to allow gay youth to participate in its organization. Now we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief and hold up the BSA as an organization that has taken a stand against discrimination.

Well, not quite. Did you know that atheist, humanist and nontheist youth are still strictly forbidden from joining the Boy Scouts? And that BSA leaders who have spoken against this policy have been dismissed, and even Eagle Scouts have been expelled for their nonbelief?

Many BSA troops are sponsored by religious groups. Scouts and leaders must sign a Declaration of Religious Principles maintaining that “No boy can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing his obligation to God.” The BSA oath states “duty to God” as one of its core principles and Scout law states that a Scout is “reverent.”

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The BSA is currently in court defending itself against several discrimination lawsuits because of this stance. In its legal briefs, the BSA suddenly claims to be a “private group” with an essentially religious basis and, therefore, exempt from anti-discrimination laws. But the BSA bylaws declare the organization to be “nonsectarian,” and its bylaws and charter do not permit the exclusion of any boy — gay, atheist or otherwise.

There are perks to scouting. For instance, participation in Explorer Scouting is rewarded by public and private employers through promotions or preferential hiring. Completing the rank of Eagle Scout, with its numerous achievements, is highly regarded.

For all practical purposes, the BSA serves national interests. There are no alternatives anywhere near its size and stature. (It should be noted that the Girl Scouts have no such problems, having dropped the requirements for a God belief years ago.)

Now, suppose we are talking about your child. He has participated enthusiastically in scouting activities since he was a Cub Scout. You (and, you assume, the Boy Scouts) have taught him well. He lives in accordance with Boy Scout law: He is truly trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave and clean. He does a good turn every day of his life. You are justifiably very proud of him.

One day, when he is 14, he comes to you with a serious problem. He’s been doing a lot of thinking about God. He has decided that he cannot in his honest heart believe in a God who allows terrible things to happen in the world. He knows this goes against his Scouting principles.

This troubles him very much. He’d rather believe, but he can’t. It simply doesn’t make sense to him. He tells you he is an atheist. He does not want to be a dishonest person. He is telling you his secret and asking what he should do. How could you advise him? It seems he has two choices: Stay in scouting (a very important part of his life) and live a lie, or be honest and get booted out of his troop in disgrace.

Either way, everyone loses. If he stays in the Scouts, he will have to gloss over some key scouting principles. He will have to lie. Thus the Boy Scouts will have effectively taught him that lying is acceptable and that he is a second-class citizen who must do so just to fit in.

If he leaves scouting, he will lose the activities he loves and the friends he cherishes. And later, scouting will lose a potentially valuable leader.

No parent, and certainly no child, should ever be put in this situation. It is nothing but religious bigotry, and it isn’t right.

The BSA claims to be helping to solve some of the social and moral problems we face as a nation. Yet they insist on punishing youth who have the integrity to admit their doubts about religion. Surely they are themselves breaking a basic moral principle — “It is wrong to harm a child.”

So, while humanists applaud the BSA’s lifting of the ban on gay scouts, isn’t it time they finished the job and made it an organization truly open and welcoming to all?

Barbara Dority was formerly president of the Humanists of Washington, a position she held for 25 years. She lives in Ballard with her husband, four cats and two birds. Readers may send feedback to

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