The Boy Scouts' Jamboree, held every four years, is an epic event for bucolic Caroline County.
Held at Fort A.P. Hill for 25 years, the event more than triples the county's population, bringing 40,000 Scouts, leaders and staff together for 10 days of sports, conservation activities and the construction of a tent city so elaborate that military officials compare it to a refugee camp. County officials estimate that when the latest jamboree begins a week from tomorrow, 300,000 additional people will stream into the area, including parents, vendors and other spectators.
The jamboree is also an important event for the U.S. military, which has been supporting it since the 1930s with contractors, 1,500 troops and $2 million a year in Defense Department funding. However, that relationship is coming under scrutiny.
A federal judge ruled late last month that the Pentagon funding is unconstitutional because the Boy Scouts are a religious organization, requiring Scouts to affirm a belief in God. The case was initiated by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Scouts and their advocates -- including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Jo Ann S. Davis (R-Va.), whose district includes Fort A.P. Hill -- are livid, saying the jamboree provides a unique training opportunity for troops. Among those speaking out this week was Nathan Diament, director of public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, who said the ruling in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois amounts to "discrimination against religious entities."
Even as the government plans its appeal and Davis pushes legislation to try to ensure that Pentagon funding for the jamboree continues, experts say the ruling by Judge Blanche Manning is part of an escalating battle over government funding of religious organizations.
Stanley Carlson-Thies, a former adviser to the Bush White House on faith-based issues who now advises groups through the Center for Public Justice, said people are closely watching such decisions. He thinks that Manning's ruling should be overturned and that society needs to focus more on what faith-based groups do, rather than what they believe.
"We ought to say, different groups have different standards. We may not like each of them, but they make up the mosaic of American society. If we force them to have the same standards, then we lose that diversity," he said.
The Boy Scouts declined to comment on whether the group would be able to continue the $26 million event without government support. According to the ACLU, the Pentagon spends $15,000 on pediatric medical supplies, $10,000 for mementos and $5,000 on cookie dough for the event.
Losing the jamboree would be a serious blow for Caroline, which gets about $1 million in revenue during the event, said Gary Wilson, the county's economic development director. Events such as model train shows and book fairs are timed to coincide with the jamboree, and businesses print up promotional material to hand out to Scouts' families.
Residents work at the event and sell the Scouts raw materials, and guests fill hotels and restaurants.
"Our hotels are booked four years in advance," Wilson said.
Others in Caroline, a mostly rural county halfway between the District and Richmond, are unconcerned.
"From everything I understand, Davis thinks there isn't going to be a problem," said Peter Swain, who has led Troop 173 in Bowling Green, the county seat, for 33 years. Swain was unaware that the Jamboree received financial support from the Defense Department but did not seem bothered by the idea.
"I think people are jealous of the Scouts because they are so strong," he said. "They voted out homosexuals, and they won that. Who knows where this will end?"
All sides agree that the relationship between the Scouts and the U.S. military is a long-standing, unusual one. The military has been supporting the jamboree since 1937, and Congress eventually made financial support of the event part of federal law. Davis and Frist believe a new measure could be stronger and unchallengeable.
During the jamborees, thousands of U.S. troops set up and take down 17,000 tents and provide security, communications support and medical services, among other things.
But the relationship was called into question in 1999, when a group of Chicago taxpayers -- including a Methodist minister and a rabbi -- sued several government agencies for their financial support of the Boy Scouts. The ACLU represented the group.
Named in the suit, along with the Pentagon, were the Chicago Board of Education and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, because some schools and housing projects were sponsors of Scout troops. A settlement was reached on government sponsorship -- which included military bases around the world as well -- and the practice was stopped, but the part of the suit that concerns jamboree funding remains in the courts.
At the heart of the case, Carlson-Thies said, is an issue that is increasingly being brought before courts as the government increases its partnerships with civic and service organizations: How exactly does the First Amendment apply to the funding of faith-based groups?
The ACLU and its supporters say groups that discriminate on the basis of religion can receive government funding -- as many social service groups do -- but that they typically are competing with other groups for neutral grants that have specific requirements, such as providing services for the homeless.
"To the extent that camping is a worthwhile activity, there's no reason why this has to be limited to the Boy Scouts," said Adam Schwartz, lead attorney for the ACLU of Illinois. "If the money is good for local merchants, why not give other groups a crack at it?"
But supporters of the Scouts-Defense Department relationship say no other group would be able to provide a training event for the military like the jamboree.
"This is a symbiotic relationship," said Robert Bork, a communications consultant who represents the Boy Scouts on legal issues.
And besides, Bork said, other youth groups -- including Big Brothers, Big Sisters and the YMCA -- receive millions of dollars from the federal government. Public money is also sometimes "earmarked" for a specific recipient by having requirements written with a particular group in mind, a practice that constitutional law expert Robert Tuttle calls "the dark recesses under your fridge in constitutional law" because it skirts the rule of neutrality.
"Until the last 10 years, all the energy in this field was focused on parochial schools; no one paid attention to faith-based initiatives," said Tuttle, who teaches at George Washington University Law School. "Now that's changing. People are starting to understand there are all these nooks and crannies in funding and really looking at them."
The ACLU did not make funding of this year's jamboree an issue.