ACLU Suit Challenges U.S. Funding For Jamboree

Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell backs the Pentagon's support of the Boy Scout event.
Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell backs the Pentagon's support of the Boy Scout event. (Haraz N. Ghanbari - AP)
By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 6, 2006

A civil liberties group is going to court today to try to end the National Boy Scout Jamboree, held every four years at Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia, arguing that the Defense Department's financial support of the event violates the separation of church and state.

American Civil Liberties Union attorneys will argue before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Chicago that the government is violating the First Amendment by allowing the Pentagon to spend millions on the jamboree, the Boy Scouts' largest traditional gathering.

The ACLU's lawsuit against the Defense Department contends that the words "duty to God" in the Boy Scout Oath make the group a religious organization and that any government support gives the Boy Scouts special treatment.

A federal judge ruled last year in favor of the ACLU, saying the government's financial support was unconstitutional. The Justice Department appealed.

Held since 1981 at Fort A.P. Hill, the jamboree has regularly attracted 40,000 scouts and their leaders and tens of thousands of tourists to Caroline County, Va.

Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) publicly castigated the ACLU during a news conference yesterday, calling the lawsuit another "attack by the left wing" on religion in the public sphere. McDonnell and several other Virginia officials have filed a legal brief in support of Pentagon funding for the event.

"As a former Boy Scout myself and an Army officer, I'm particularly offended by the decision by the federal court to strike this down," McDonnell said.

Calling the ACLU lawsuit "outrageous," McDonnell said U.S. District Judge Blanche M. Manning's ruling last year was "way out of the mainstream."

The ACLU's Illinois chapter filed suit against the Pentagon in July 2005 on behalf of Chicago Methodist Minister Eugene Winkler and Rabbi Gary Gerson. U.S. Department of Justice attorney Lowell V. Sturgill Jr. was out of the office yesterday and could not be reached for comment.

The suit, Winkler v. Rumsfeld , is scheduled to be heard by a three-judge panel in Chicago this morning.

The Boy Scouts of America, which is not a party to the lawsuit, has filed a legal brief in support of the Pentagon. George Davidson, national legal counsel for the Boy Scouts, said Pentagon participation in the event is an important showcase for the military and has the potential to draw new recruits.

"The jamboree has absolutely nothing to do with religion and everything to do with having a stronger military," Davidson said.

Last year, the Pentagon spent nearly $8 million on the jamboree, providing first-aid, security and other logistical support, according to legal documents filed on behalf of the government in the case. Since 1997, the government has spent about $22.3 million on the gatherings, according to the ACLU.

During last year's gathering, the Boy Scouts spent about $17 million in Virginia, according to McDonnell and others. McDonnell credited the jamboree with boosting tax and sales revenue in Caroline County by $800,000 last year.

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