Proposed Boy Scouts of America Policy That Could Allow Gay Members Would Still Exclude Atheists

This sounds like exciting news from the Boy Scouts of America:

Currently, the BSA is discussing potentially removing the national membership restriction regarding sexual orientation. This would mean there would no longer be any national policy regarding sexual orientation, and the chartered organizations that oversee and deliver Scouting would accept membership and select leaders consistent with each organization’s mission, principles, or religious beliefs. BSA members and parents would be able to choose a local unit that best meets the needs of their families.

“The policy change under discussion would allow the religious, civic, or educational organizations that oversee and deliver Scouting to determine how to address this issue. The Boy Scouts would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members, or parents. Under this proposed policy, the BSA would not require any chartered organization to act in ways inconsistent with that organization’s mission, principles, or religious beliefs.

In some ways, it’s about damn time. For too long, the BSA has kicked out excellent scouts and troop leaders because of their sexual orientation, an issue that had no bearing on anything.

This policy, if implemented, would unfortunately still allow for bigotry within certain chapters, but it would also open the door to other BSA troops welcoming gay members without reprimand from the parent group. It would mean groups like the one in Maryland would not be in danger of losing their charter because they were accepting of everybody.

It’s a big step forward for the organization and one that will only serve to make the Scouts stronger.

But it doesn’t go far enough.

Even with the proposed change, atheists would still be barred from becoming Scouts.

The Scout Oath still says:

On my honor I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country

and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake, and morally straight.

There is no alternative oath for atheists.

Also, Scout Law says:

A Scout is:
Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful,
Friendly, Courteous, Kind,
Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty,
Brave, Clean, Reverent

Reverent, of course, refers to God.

In other words, that last line of today’s press release is a lie:

Under this proposed policy, the BSA would not require any chartered organization to act in ways inconsistent with that organization’s mission, principles, or religious beliefs.

Well, yes they would.

If a chapter of the BSA welcomed atheists, the BSA umbrella group could still deny the atheists membership. They did it with Darrell Lambert a decade ago and several times before and after that.

So I applaud the BSA’s potential policy change, but they should take one more step and recognize that atheists/agnostics/Humanists, too, are fully capable of being excellent Scouts.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Gus Snarp

    This is pretty amazing, really. Just a few months ago they were swearing they would never change. It’s pretty clear that the public pressure put on them is having an effect, and that is a very positive sign. I’m honestly very surprised to hear this. But I agree that it’s not enough. The BSA should not allow any of its affiliates to discriminate, period. And I still can’t enroll my kids in Boy Scouts without telling them to lie about their religious beliefs.

    I want to recognize this, if they go through with it, as a positive step and reward them for it, but I want to simultaneously keep the pressure on for all the changes they need to make to catch up with the twenty first century: eliminating all discrimination on sexual orientation, sex, and religious belief or lack thereof. I won’t really be satisfied until I see the first atheist lesbian transgender Eagle Scout.

  • Zugswang

    I just hope this isn’t another tease from the BSA after a similar announcement that they would review policy allowing gays in scouting a while back went nowhere.

    And again, no love for the godless. Guess all my scouting stuff still has to stay in a cardboard box in the basement.

  • Zugswang

    I just hope this isn’t another tease from the BSA after a similar announcement that they would review policy allowing gays in scouting a while back went nowhere.

    And again, no love for the godless. Guess all my scouting stuff still has to stay in a cardboard box in the basement.

  • Cat’s Staff

    I was in Boy Scouts many years ago, just before they started cracking down on gays. It started as an effort to protect kids fro pedophiles. I gave lip service to the references to a god in the oath, and ‘reverent’ in the law just meant ‘I should know my own beliefs (I was an atheist, there I know them), and respect the beliefs of others’. If you read the first sentence of the description of reverent at the link, that’s pretty much all it says.

    I was an Eagle Scout. I have met a lot of atheists who were Eagle Scouts or in scouting. I also know several of the people I was in scouts with are now out of the closet as gay.

  • Andrew T.

    The organization has repeatedly demonstrated that they’re opposed to secularism and completely detached from the modern world…and even if they did a 360 turnabout and became 100% gay- and atheist-friendly tomorrow, their record of policy for the years and decades until then would leave a dark mark of bigotry on their record for years and decades to come. This needed to happen AT LEAST 20 years earlier for me to think otherwise. I was a Cub Scout, and had a bit of reverence for the BSA at one time…but at this point, I no longer care.

  • TiltedHorizon

    If it means the BSA will no longer judge, condemn and exclude people based on sexual orientation then I have no problem carrying the burden of remaining discrimination. Contrary to the idiom, my misery does NOT love company, I’d rather be alone in discrimination than wish it shared with company.

  • Epinephrine

    Even in Canada, the scouting group my son attends will not officially allow atheists. The leader is even (I suspect) atheist, but asked us to leave the line blank rather than write in atheist, and though they rush through the pledge, they still make the beavers say it.

  • John Evans

    Did a 180, you mean. Doing a 360 brings you right back to the way you’re facing now.

  • Rich Wilson

    I just hope the LGBT community will keep pressing, like ‘we’ have been on their behalf.

  • Arthur Byrne

    It’s progress; one step at a time. The stance on homosexuality seems to be shifting a bit faster than on atheism, so it’s not surprising it would be first.

    Contrariwise, atheist just means “duty to God” is really easy to do; if there is no God, there is no duty to the God needing to be done. “Reverent” then could be taken in a broader meaning, of politeness to other people about their religious beliefs as well as integrity of exercise in your own (possibly emphasizing the former). That sort of change seems likely a good decade-plus out, however.

  • Anna

    Hate to say, but I doubt it. I haven’t seen the LGBT community address discrimination against atheists. In fact, I rarely see the media pay any attention to the fact that atheists are excluded from Scouting. The vast majority of news stories only mention the ban on sexual orientation. If that goes away, I think we’ll be totally ignored.

  • Richard Wade

    I guess the BSA has to reconsider removing their bigotries only one at a time. For many of the top leaders and sponsors, it must be like removing warts with a pair of pliers. Can’t say I feel sorry for them.

    More than thirty years separate the Stonewall riots and the publishing of the best-selling books on atheism by Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett. Perhaps those events can be loosely compared as the respective starting points in the emancipation of the gay community and the atheist community. LGBT people have fought hard and sacrificed much to gain what they have so far, and atheists take many valuable lessons and much inspiration from their successes.

    I just hope that atheists don’t have to fight and sacrifice for another thirty years just to reach the level of acceptance that the gay community has presently accomplished.

  • TiltedHorizon

    I’ll share that hope with you but past experience suggests they will be silent in their support.

  • Santiago

    You have to start somewhere…

  • Santiago

    Potential is the key word here. Lets wait and see.

    My boy and I were members of the cub scouts. When the time came to join the boy scouts we decided not to :(

    Oh well, this potential change would be great news.

  • Rich Wilson

    I will grant that LGBT folks probably face more societal challenges than atheists. I’m not in much of a position to judge, but most of what I face is ceremonial, not real. Not completely, but mostly.

    It’s just sad that marginalized groups aren’t better able to empathize with the marginalization of other groups.

  • MD

    Baby steps, baby steps. They realise they are being left behind.

  • coyotenose

    The media want an excuse to sensationalize things, though. Think of it as an opportunity to get noticed.

  • Anna

    But that’s the thing. Atheists haven’t been shy about pointing out the discrimination against us. There have been court cases where atheist children (some quite young) have been denied membership. Yet the media still tends to focus almost exclusively on sexual orientation.
    I think it might just be that a lot of people don’t care if atheists are allowed to join. As long as the BSA lets in gay people and minority religions, I fear that their discriminatory policies will cease to be seen as a big deal.

  • A3Kr0n

    They’re not being very inclusive if they don’t include the most despised group in the country (atheists). I’m feeling minimized right now, which means I still have something to bitch about :-)

  • Ubi Dubium

    At this point, they’re just discussing it. Since there is overwhelming influence in the BSA from the Mormons and the Catholics, what are the odds that this policy will actually be adopted? Pretty slim, I think.

  • Friendly Scout

    I’m an Asst. Scoutmaster in So. Cal. and am overjoyed at this potential breakthrough. I’m also sympathetic to atheists and hope someday for a similarly inclusive solution. Not being an atheist, myself, I’m curious whether atheist activists would consider advancing the following considerations: 1) as defined in Webster (online) none of the first three entries for reverent / reverence even mentions “God” … can’t an atheist scout be “reverent” without subscribing to a belief? 2) though the scout oath expresses the “duty to God”, other spiritual organizations (i.e. twelve-step programs) attempt to retain their doctrine while reaching out to all by allowing them to define God “however they choose”. Is that too much of a stretch?

  • Anna

    They could do what the Girl Scouts do and allow members to substitute another word for “God” in the oath.
    It would also be more appropriate for Scouts from non-monotheistic religious backgrounds. Buddhists are allowed to join, for example, but not all Buddhists believe in a deity.

  • Mattir

    The BSA definition of an atheist is, as far as I can tell, someone who believes that they are literally the greatest power in the universe. It is the most extreme use of the no-true-scotsman argument that I have ever encountered. A tree, nature, a rock, the weak nuclear force? All totally fine as long as you thing they are more powerful than you, and presto, you’re not an atheist. I’ve been a scouting volunteer for almost 10 years, very vocal about gay rights and how immoral the discriminatory policy is. I’m fairly open about not believing in a personal god and being highly dubious about the first mover deist god. I have never had a problem, even with fairly religious theistic types.

    I substitute good for god, add “which does not mean what you think it means” to the “morally straight” part of the oath, and view “reverent” in the same way that I’ve heard E.O. Wilson describe it – a respectful awe towards the natural world.

    The BSA has some of the best outdoor and life skills learning material I’ve ever encountered. It would be nice to be able to use them without getting derailed into discussions of the discriminatory policies towards gay youth and adults.

  • Rich Wilson

    I guess I felt pretty reverent when my son looked through our telescope and saw Jupiter’s moons.

    Saying ‘God’ is still a bit of an issue for me since I define ‘God’ as ‘almost certainly non-existent’.

    I think it would really come down to how much my son wanted to join, and whether we would be welcomed knowing that we are atheists. Well, he is so far, but he’s young, that may change. And as long as the oath didn’t create a contradiction with respect to ‘honesty’. I’m ok with compromise, but it seems like one’s Oath should be a place where one doesn’t twist things to make it technically not not really honest.

  • Mattir

    I answered this question above, but yes, I’m an atheist and I view the reverence part of the scout law as referring to my attitude toward and treatment of the natural world. I tend to substitute “good” for god in the oath, and leave the “under god” bit of the pledge of allegiance out altogether since it came from the McCarthyite paranoia of the 1950s.

  • Anna

    You know, I’ve never understood why they allow Buddhists. Is it just to appear PC? Buddhism has absolutely nothing to do with worshipping a god. If the requirement is just to believe in the supernatural (without worshipping or “doing duty” to it), then why the heck does it even matter?

  • Mattir

    You cannot come up with a no-atheists policy that allows Jews (including humanistic Judaism) and Buddhists and still excludes anyone at all. So yeah, like I said, it’s the single most egregious use of the no-true-scotsman argument that I’ve ever encountered.

  • Adam Steele

    Besides atheist of course, they really need to change their policy on females in general also. Almost every other country with Scouting (not Boy Scouting) has had it fully integrated as a coed system for years, if not decades. Even England, where Scouting began.

    Also, just let people use the Outlanders Oath like everyone else, including Baden fricken Powell did a century ago because he knew they were people who didn’t believe or couldn’t swear oaths to a god like Quakers.

  • Mattir

    It’s a financial issue – they’re losing corporate donations like crazy, and several members of their board are vocal about the policy needing to change. When the head of ATT tells you that your policies need to change, you look for ways to keep getting the donations and corporate support while allowing the Catholics and the Mormons to do what they want. I have no problem with allowing this, since I can go work at the scout troop with the Unitarians or the Humanist Jews or whatever.

  • Mattir

    BSA has a co-ed program for teens called Venturing. It’s fantastic. I wish there was a co-ed program for younger kids, but I’ve heard scout officials say that it’s coming in the foreseeable future. So there’s that.

  • Defiantnonbeliever

    Sounds like a ‘states rights’ approach to me and a disintegration of the scouts that’s going in the wrong direction and would allow yet more religion in. Frankly I’d like to see them replaced wholesale after all it’s privilege is removed and its real-estate has been nationalized. with an organization that can evolve without splintering. As long as the BSA is religious it wont evolve but merely have schisms as this approach demonstrates.

  • Brian Westley

    If they DO continue to exclude atheists, they won’t get any sort of government-sponsored units like public schools, which used to be the #1 sponsor of units until the ACLU threatened to sue (which I helped instigate).

    I think it’s possible that the BSA will only remove the gay restriction and some public school officials will assume that atheists are included and go back to chartering units. In that case, we’d need an atheist for a test case.

  • Christine

    I’m curious as to how having an alternative version of the promise would help. I can’t see it going any better than it does in Girl Guides here (in Canada). The other girls will “correct” you if you don’t say “God”, even though the promise officially has two versions.

  • crs5012723

    Instead of actually standing up for what’s right, the national organization just trying to give themselves plausible deniability in order to get their money back from companies that stopped donating. When they ban discrimination against gay and atheist scouts, then they’ll have my respect. I see this as just an example of “leaders” refusing to actually lead. And in all honesty, they “considered” a similar policy before and after two years of review, decided to keep on discriminating, so I’m not holding my breath.

  • Emma Pease

    Given that Canadian Guides no longer have the word ‘god’ in their promise that is a bit odd.

    I Promise to do my best,
    To be true to myself, my beliefs and Canada
    I will take action for a better world
    And respect the Guiding Law

  • McAtheist

    You are definitely NOT qualified to tie knots, go camping, pitch tents, volunteer for community service, earn merit badges or learn leadership skills unless you are also a member of the ‘godsquad’. Everybody knows that..

  • blah

    I’m not sure if I completely understand the angle that atheists are trying to get at, so please help me out.

    If an organization professes belief in God as a requirement, can’t you simply find or start your own organization? The next think on the list will be churches being sued because they deny an atheist somewhere the “right” as I’m sure it will be called take communion at church.

    Equal rights does not mean that everyone has the right to be included, especially in a private organization. Instead it means that you have the right to create your own similar organization and yes, they too should be able to gain non-profit status, etc, etc is the way I see it. This is what we call equal representation.

    Just like in schools, for every guy sport there must be a girls sport offered as w Go make your own organizations, if the public likes it, then it will grow. It’s that easy!

  • Andrew T.

    Yeah, I slipped…oh well, you know what I mean. :) Though they’ve been going in 360s too through their constant cycle of suggestions and inaction!

  • Kevin Kirkpatrick

    “Under this proposed policy, the BSA would not require any
    chartered organization to act in ways inconsistent with that
    organization’s mission, principles, or religious beliefs.”

    Call me unrealistically optimistic, but under this umbrella statement, I can definitely see a local BSA troop allowing atheist members, and even allowing them to recite a secular oath, without any pushback from above. Having just gotten through the heart-wrenching saga of disallowing my 6 year old son from joining BSA (explained to him “Boy Scouts is a group that bullies and is mean to a lot of other kids, and we don’t play with bullies”), words can’t express how hopeful I am that this goes through.

  • macprince

    A friend of mine pointed out a much bigger problem with this change: It lets the national BSA off the hook for discrimination, while still allowing local units to discriminate as they like:

    “and the chartered organizations that oversee and deliver Scouting would accept membership and select leaders consistent with each organization’s mission, principles, or religious beliefs”

    Consider that a large number of Boy Scout organizations are run/sponsored by churches and other religious organizations. They can now discriminate all they want, they just won’t have the explicit backing of the national organization to do it.

    The same friend said it right, I think: “Boy Scouts of America gives open-minded people 111,668 potentially-discriminating organizations to worry about, instead of just one.”

  • Brian Westley

    I often compare atheists to Deists when BSA defenders bring up how an atheist cannot do his “duty to god”. I point out that many Deists believe in a god that is completely unconcerned about humanity, and people have NO duties towards such a god, so there’s no difference between an atheist and a Deist as far as “duty to god” goes (assuming an atheist says something like he doesn’t consider god to exist and hence has no duties towards a nonexistent being). Among others, Neil Armstrong was an Eagle scout and a Deist.

  • baal

    I have mixed feeling about the view that one marginalized group should support another. It’s true that each fraction of society is more powerful if they ally with their neighbors but so much of the struggle for black racial justice was carried out specifically by folks who identify as black (and their allies) and so much of gay equal rights was carried out by gays (and their allies)…. I’m leaning towards thinking that it’s atheists (and their allies) who need to carry atheism forward.

  • baal

    After I left the BSA (what at 12 or so), I did do some camping with the Venturing side and it was ok. I didn’t have to make a number of pledges or sit through prayer like I did as a scout.

  • baal

    “can’t you simply find or start your own organization”

    Alternative scouting does exist. It’s spotty and has a hard time finding corp. and other donor backing the same way the BSA does. Many of the folks who would want to do scouting can’t necessarily pay their entire way. Also, having a national organization is useful since that means you can buy or rent more cheaply better camping sites and training centers (for scouts and scout leaders).

    It’s far from simple to start big orgs or to merge 1001 small orgs into a national organization. Really, it takes the better part of a year even to set up and hold a medium sized conference.

    I’m leaving aside the question about non-discrimination being a virtue for my reply and will suggest that separate isn’t equal.

  • Anna

    There is no reason to have “belief in God” as a requirement. Boy Scouts is not about worshipping a deity. It’s about going camping and learning life skills. Public school troops and packs (of which my brother was a member) are not organized around a particular religion. The BSA excludes atheists for the sole purpose of bigotry, and they’re not even consistent about it! If the Boy Scouts truly believed that worshipping a god was essential to a boy’s moral development, then they would not allow Buddhists or others whose religions do not teach them to worship or “do their duty” to a god.

    They allow Buddhists and other members of non-monotheistic, non-Western religions. Since they allow them, there’s no reason to exclude atheists. If they were a “Christian organization,” they wouldn’t let in any of those kids, but of course then there would be a firestorm of controversy. It’s not acceptable to discriminate against minority religions anymore. So they let them in them, but make atheists (and gays) their scapegoat. Because no one cares very much if atheists are excluded.

    It’s just plain ugly, nasty bigotry. And they can be a “private organization” if they want, but then they should stop complaining about not getting free perks and benefits from the government. And if they want to discriminate, then they should expect public scrutiny and condemnation for excluding people based on their religion and sexual orientation.

  • Rich Wilson

    Just as an anecdote point, the city I live in just announced a new policy requiring all groups to pay the full cost for rental of city facilities That is, no ‘special rates’ for anyone. The Boy Scouts are raising a big stink because they will no longer get nearly free access to the city building next to the city park to hold their meetings.

    BSA enjoys a lot of privilege. Certainly other groups can and do exist, but Boy Scouts isn’t really and truly private so long as they enjoy privileged access, legal or not, to tax pay funded facilities.

  • Anna

    Are they not allowed to charter troops through public schools anymore? If so, that’s progress! Sad for the kids, but good that they no longer host a discriminatory organization. My brother’s Cub Scout pack was chartered through school, as was my Girl Scout troop. Neither of us would have been involved in Scouts otherwise.

  • Friendly Scout

    Mattir – it will be interesting to see how the Unitarian Universalist Church responds. In ’92 they annotated their BSA Religion-in-Life medal with criticism of the BSA’s policies toward homosexuals, agnotics, and atheists — and the BSA responded by yanking their medal. Unitarian scouts arranged for their own medal – apart from the church – through a “Memorandum of Mutual Support”. Will the Universalist Church relent or press for inclusion for atheists & agnostics? Stay tuned. Thanks for your great service to the BSA (posted elsewhere on this thread).

  • Christoph

    I second this. In scouting right now, the word “God” is already so wishy-washy in its definition at the national level as to be meaningless. Buddhists are allowed to participate in Scouts, and there is even a religious award they can get (the Metta award).

  • Drew M.

    Very, very well said!

  • blah

    And your name must be Lord Baden Powell himself right? How do you know what Boy Scouts is about? Did you start it? Have you been in it? Nah, didn’t think so. I’ve been apart of scouts for 27 years straight. I might know what it’s about better than you do. Just saying!

    That’s part of societies problem. Your opinion and thoughts matter. But just because you think a certain way does not mean that this is how is should be. It’s how YOU think it should be. Anna did not start the Boy Scouts did you?

  • blah

    Separate CAN be equal though, but it would take a lot of work. Who knows, maybe someday their will be a thriving alternative to scouting that could “stick it to the BSA”. That will never happen though as long as this argument is raging on. Why not invest with time, passion and dollars into a program that has the same values as you rather than trying to change the values of an already established organization? It doesn’t make sense to me.

    What would happen if I showed up to a LGBT meeting and as someone who doesn’t agree with this lifestyle, started berating the group and told them that they couldn’t be affectionate with one another because it isn’t tolerant and respectful of my beliefs but yet you have to let me back next week? Okay, next week comes along and this time I tell everyone they’re going to hell if they don’t change their thought and processes? Next week comes and this disgusting tirade continues week after week.I would like to think that the group would eventually tell me to take a hike and that I need a different organization to spend time with.

    But wait, you have to include me! You’re wrong for not including MY lifestyle. You’re not being tolerant of me! Reverse prejudice! Foul! How dare you tell me I can’t come back anymore!

    Why is it that this scenario doesn’t happen? Would it happen if I tried it?

    I’m curious what would take place. Maybe I’ll start sponsoring my school’s LGBSTA next year and tell them what I think of their “alternative lifestyle” just to find out. When they try to kick me off as the sponsor I’ll just tell them that they must tolerate my views!

    Obviously, I WOULD NEVER do such a horrible thing. But what if? Wouldn’t I have the “right” to?

  • allein

    Kids who happen to be gay wanting to take part in scouting activities with other kids =/= disrupting meetings to tell everyone how wrong they are.

  • Rich Wilson

    Kind of like having a book club for right handed people only. Sure, you can.

  • Anna

    So only people who are allowed to be members of the organization are allowed to talk? That’s mighty…convenient, I must say.

    There are gay men and atheist men who have been part of the organization for 27 years, and I’m sure many have been involved with it longer. Somehow I don’t think you would take their opinions seriously either.

    You seem to have appointed yourself master of the organization, but you didn’t start it, and you don’t run it. Your opinion is no more valid than anyone else’s. People who look at their bigotry and feel ashamed (and that includes many current and former Scouts and former supporters) are allowed to have their say.

  • Joy Westgate-Scherer