Why Did the Unitarian Universalists Sign a Pact with the Anti-Atheist Boy Scouts?

As longtime readers are surely aware, two of the biggest complaints against the Boy Scouts of America over the past decade have been their policies against gay members and atheists. (They’re a private group, so they’re legally allowed to do this, but they get plenty of support from the government and public schools, which is the problem.)

In 2013, the ban on gay scouts was finally lifted. In 2015, the ban on gay scout leaders went away, too. The ban on atheists is still in effect.

Enter the Unitarian Universalist Association. They’ve long been on the side of civil rights and have many non-religious members. In 1998, they cut all ties with the BSA because of the bigotry. And even as the barriers went away these past few years, the UUA maintained that separation, showing solidarity with atheists.

That’s why it’s extremely disappointing that the UUA has now reconciled with the BSA, signing a “Memorandum of Understanding” that will lead to more cooperation between the groups:

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The document affirms the UUA’s commitment to freedom of conscience and to LGBT rights, and it promises that the organizations will “work cooperatively with each other within the policies and regulations of each organization to establish and nurture Scouting units.”

“There is no Boy Scout or UUA authority which supersedes the authority of the leadership of the congregation in any phase of the program affecting the spiritual welfare of those who participate,” the memorandum concludes, in a nod to the importance that Unitarian Universalism places on decision-making by local congregations.

Why is the UUA getting in bed with an organization that shuts out open atheists?

John B. Hooper, President of the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association, was also disturbed by the arrangement, and he reached out to UUA President Peter Morales (a Humanist himself). This is what Morales told him:

I know that the BSA and UU values don’t perfectly align, but we do think this is an important first step in creating change from within. Zach Wahls, co-founder of Scouts for Equality, a UU Scout and Eagle Scout, counseled us that the BSA is much more likely to make policy changes when addressing their own constituencies and chartering organizations. As he said, in UU World, “When you have the UUA, the UCC, public schools at the table, it helps the Scouts see that if they decide to change their membership policies and include nontheists, it makes it much easier for them to make that change if and when that time comes.”

In other words, they think they have a better chance of changing the policy from the inside.

Maybe that sounds strategic, but plenty of scouts complained about the organization’s anti-gay policies for years and got nowhere. It wasn’t until the public pressure from the outside became so overwhelming, threatening the very existence and livelihood of the group, that things finally changed.

And let’s be honest: The Scouts’ anti-atheist animus isn’t nearly as well-known. That pressure isn’t going to be there from the outside. So on a practical level, it’s hard to see how the UUA high-fiving the BSA will ever lead to a change in policy.

Morales added that UU congregations would be allowed to welcome atheists into their troops. But would the Boy Scouts really be okay with that? In the past, they’ve made clear you cannot become an Eagle Scout unless you believe in a Higher Power. Maybe the BSA will look the other way for a while, but these are two conflicting viewpoints. They can’t both win out.

Sounds like the UUA sold out for no good reason.

(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Brian for the link)

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.


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