I have been in uniform twice in my life. The first time was in the Boy Scouts and the second time was in the Army, and nary a difference did I discern between the two. One taught me knots and the other taught me how to build bridges, and neither is a skill that has been in any way useful. Comes now the news, however, that there is a difference between the two: The Boy Scouts require a belief in God.

Paul Trout, a 15-year-old West Virginian, has been bounced from the Scouts for admitting that he does not believe in God. From the highest levels of scouting came a ruling that while a scout does not actually have to be brave or (for sure) clean, he had better be reverent: "If a person does not believe in a Supreme Being, then they (sic) cannot be a member of the Boy Scouts of America," wrote Ben H. Love, chief scout executive and a man who shakes hands with three fingers.

Consider for a moment what is implied in Love's letter -- that a person's beliefs are infinitely more important than the way he or she behaves. Trout managed to make it almost to Life, the penultimate rank, before it was discovered that he was an atheist. And he is praised by those who know him as a Boy Scout par excellence. "I hated to lose him," said Albert Magahee, his scoutmaster. "He was the best-disciplined and most helpful of the boys in my troop."

In a cynicism born of a Scouting experience in which boys who could not tie their shoes were forced to make knots that could handcuff an octopus, I would counsel Trout to forget all about scouting. It instills in young men useless woodland arcana that comes in handy only should you ever choose to live in a tree.

But there is a matter of principle involved here, which happens to be something called religious toleration -- the reason, after all, the Pilgrims set sail for the New World and so many others followed. The real worth of scouting is that it is supposed to teach true American values and not just how to build a radio out of dry leaves and polar bear spittle. One of those values is that you should be judged by what you do, not by what you believe.

As far as scouting goes, Trout's atheism ought to be beside the point. It puts out no fires, it scares off no animals and it does nothing to erode the land. It simply sits in Trout's head as a personal belief -- a conclusion he has reached by following the dictates of his own logic. Most people have reached a different conclusion, but that should hardly disqualify a young man from membership in the Boy Scouts.

After all, if some beliefs are to be considered beyond the pale, then where would you stop? Why is a belief in the "wrong" God better than a belief in no God? And if one of the exalted, if unstated, tenets of scouting is to follow your intellect, then how can you tell a kid his beliefs have taken him right out of a movement he cherishes? What is the lesson here for kids -- that you are free to believe anything as long as it is accepted?

The scouts respond with the Scout Oath and its reference to doing "my duty to God and my country" -- a non-answer reminiscent of other times when casually chosen words formed the basis for discrimination. But no words alter the fact that a young man has been penalized for his religious convictions. If there's a merit badge for hypocrisy, the Scouts have earned it.