Agnostic scout ousted because he’s gay?

Anyone who has followed the tensions between gay-rights activists and the Boy Scouts knows that this is a rather tense and highly politicized situation, with obvious freedom-of-association implications for groups on the cultural left and right.

But let’s set that aside for a minute and look at a rather basic journalism question linked to a recent NPR report, one that appeared under a headline that bluntly stated the thesis:

Teenage Boy Scout Denied Organization’s Top Rank Because He’s Gay

Clearly, it would cause trouble for a gay Boy Scout to be out and proud while active in this organization. However, other articles on the issue imply that there are gay Scouts and gay Scout volunteers, but that they live and work in a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” environment.

But let’s put all of that aside, as well, since that is not linked to the journalism issue that I see in this report.

It’s clear that Ryan Andresen believes he was denied his Eagle Scout award because of his sexual orientation. He claims that he was told this, point blank.

Yet, the NPR story also notes this interesting set of facts:

The Boy Scouts of America sent a statement to several news organizations, including ABC, in which they say they didn’t inquire about Ryan’s sexual orientation.

“This scout proactively notified his unit leadership and Eagle Scout counselor that he does not agree to scouting’s principle of ‘Duty to God’ and does not meet scouting’s membership standard on sexual orientation,” Deron Smith, a spokesman for the organization said in a statement. “Agreeing to do one’s ‘Duty to God’ is a part of the scout Oath and Law and a requirement of achieving the Eagle Scout rank.”

In an interview with Yahoo! News, Ryan said that his scoutmaster knew he was gay.

“He had been telling me all along that we’d get by the gay thing,” Ryan told Yahoo News. “It was by far the biggest goal of my life. It’s totally devastating.”

In other words, the story leaves readers with an unexplored factual question. Was Andresen denied his Eagle Scout award because he says he is gay, or because he acknowledged being an atheist or an agnostic? Then again, the answer to this question could have been “both.”

What did this Scout reply when asked by NPR about his religious views? We don’t know because there is no evidence that NPR took that claim seriously.

Other than claims of bullying — which are serious, in and of themselves — is there evidence that Andresen was having trouble moving up through the Scout ranks before the clash over his religious views? Is the Andresen family, in effect, saying that he IS NOT an atheist or an agnostic? There is no way to know if that question was ever asked.

That’s a problem, a journalistic problem.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Parker

    Maybe this is too nitpicky, but the news story also says that his Scoutmaster could not give him the Eagle Scout rank. The problem is, the final determination is from a Board of Review, which the Scoutmaster is not part of. I don’t know if this means that the Scoutmaster refused to submit him for a Board of Review or whether the Board of Review turned him down because he proactively informed them of his sexual orientation/religious views.
    This article wasn’t so bad, but other articles have seemed to put the blame on the scoutmaster, which leaves me wondering, was the Scoutmaster a critical part of the decision of him not getting his Board of Review, or was he just the messenger? I don’t know, no one seems to be asking that question.

    http://www.usatoday.com/story/ondeadline/2012/10/05/boy-scouts-of-america-eagle-scout-gay/1614769/

  • Kodos

    NPR has a bad track record for not reporting objectively on gay rights issues – something their ombudsman admitted back in May: http://www.npr.org/blogs/ombudsman/2012/05/14/152532150/eight-days-of-same-sex-marriage-the-coverage

    But the ombudsman’s me culpa hasn’t changed the bias of their reporting, and I expect to see more of this kind of advocacy reporting this month as we draw closer to the November gay marriage referendums in Maine, Minnesota, Maryland, and Washington. In the last three days we’ve been treated to a book review that communicates a triumpalist narrative of gay marriage victory in the near future: http://www.npr.org/2012/10/11/162635280/mapping-the-road-from-the-closet-to-the-altar
    and another triumphalist narrative (complete with underdog hero) that America is “Getting to Yes on Gay Marriage One Vote at a Time”: http://www.npr.org/2012/10/09/162112334/getting-to-yes-on-gay-marriage-one-voter-at-a-time
    not including the Gay/Atheist Boy Scout story a week ago that sparked Terry’s post.

    There are lots of rational arguments and emotionally heartwarming information from the pro-SSM folks quoted in these NPR stories. But SSM opponents aren’t granted the same. And what is the effect on NPR’s listeners?

    More to the point — is this a “spiral of silence” strategy on NPR’s part? I think so, but we’ll have to wait until the votes are counted in November to know if NPR and the MSM were successful.

    These kinds of journalistic puff pieces are frustrating for listeners like me who want to hear people on all sides of these issues being given adequate airtime to express their thoughts and ideas. Should the NPR reporter have interviewed the gay agnostic scout and his scoutmaster with more critical verve? Yes! But don’t expect it when NPR has decided that The Bad Guys are the people opposed to gay rights, because a person who deliberately flouts the rules of the organization he has voluntarily joined evidently should not be punished for flouting the rules of the organization he has voluntarily joined.

    Let’s keep a GetReligion scorecard on the number of gay marriage stories NPR runs in coming weeks, and how much airtime in these stories is given to advocates to articulate their reasons for supporting SSM versus how much airtime in these stories is given to opponents to articulate their reasons for rejecting SSM.

  • AMELIA

    “He had been telling me all along that we’d get by the gay thing,” Ryan told Yahoo News. It was by far the biggest goal of my life. It’s totally devastating.”

    Ryan’s statement might be understood to imply that it is “the gay thing” that was the biggest goal of his life, or that combining “the gay thing” with the Eagle Scout designation was the goal. This young person and his parents (and perhaps even his scout leader) seems to have accepted that his identity is determined by certain social/sexual inclinations or aversions. The God, to whom even the lowest ranking Scout acknowledges his duty, does not regard human desire or recalcitrance as of any import. In fact, the whole point of the ethos based on this God (and, therefore, the Boy Scouts) is to direct man away from selfishness and pride towards the happiness that human dignity bestows.

    In our culture, competition for recognition and merit is intensifying at the same desperate pace as our insistence on radical equality. It is no wonder that, whether it be Eagle Scout badge, or college, or marriage, it’s now the title that people are vying for and demanding, while the meaning of it — the substance — has been lost in the chaos. The MSM, and NPR in particular, seems oblivious to the fact that it is facilitating in the hollowing out the meaning and essence of our institutions and our very language.

    • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

      Back when I got my Eagle in the late 80′s, it was generally known in the troop that I was an agnostic-ish atheist. But that didn’t come up in the Board of Review and I was awarded the rank of Eagle. The ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy – with respect to religion, at least – has been going on for a long time.

  • Matt

    Did anyone ask Ryan when and why he volunteered this information to the BSA? It seems at least plausible that he decided he would rather be a test case and a media cause than keep his head down and be an Eagle Scout. Many people would see that choice as legitimate. But in any case, this would seem a very important question to delve into.

  • dalea

    Part of the issue with the Boy Scouts is that the organization has conflicting policies. On the one hand, they require belief in God. On the other , there are Scout Troops sponsored by theism optional religions: Unitarian, Universalist, Bhuddism. So, for someone who does not believe, there is a subterfuge: just claim to be a Unitarian. I have seen very little coverage on this issue, which seems odd. The ban on Gays really does not impact all that many Scouts; the ban on unbelievers would seem to have a greater reach. But goes without much coverage.


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