Still, the BSA has been much praised of late, and justly so. Responding in part to a 30 percent drop in membership, from 4.2 million in 1989 to 2.8 million in 2009, the organization has approved a dazzling set of rule changes to open scouting to many young people hitherto excluded.
In 2013, pressured by two members of its executive board — the chief executives of Ernst & Young and AT&T — the BSA ended its long-standing ban on openly gay members, and two years later it lifted its prohibition on openly gay adult leaders. In 2017 the organization agreed to allow transgender boys to be members and just this spring the BSA announced the total membership inclusiveness. Beginning in 2019 the rebranded Scouts will accept girls as full members, though in troops separate from boys.
Given these stunning reversals, it is no surprise that the Mormon Church, the first religious group to widely sponsor Scout chapters 105 years ago, announced it will end its historic connection to the organization next year, creating its own scouting program for boys.
But before we raise three hearty cheers for the BSA’s inclusive turn, it is important to note that one sizable group of young people are still excluded from membership and leadership — nonbelievers. Even as the number of nonbelievers grows steadily in the United States, the Boy Scouts still require a religious oath.
Since 1911, every new member has had to promise, “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country.” The bylaws of the BSA have a “Declaration of Religious Principles,” to which all boy scouts and scout leaders are required to subscribe: “Recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe . . . [is] necessary to the best type of citizenship.”
While the Girl Scouts dropped requiring that members had to believe in God in 1993, the BSA added in 2015 the requirement that scouts earning a new rank must “tell how you have done your duty to God.” When, in 2002, a 19-year-old Eagle Scout from Seattle, Darrell Lambert, was found to be a nonbeliever, he was summarily expelled from the Boy Scouts.
As a voluntary private organization the BSA is, of course, within its rights to set membership criteria and thus to keep out nonbelievers, a right upheld by the Supreme Court in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale in 2000. We would point out, however, that scouting is tied up with government involvement and sponsorship, receiving public aid at federal, state and local levels. The BSA received a congressional charter in 1916, and almost every U.S. president has spoken to the National Scout Jamboree since it began 80 years ago.
Requiring scouts to believe in God is as pernicious and unconstitutional a discrimination against nonbelievers as the current requirement in the state constitutions of Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas that one must believe in God to hold public office in that state. All these requirements, in scouting and in government, may be seldom enforced, but they stand as public judgment on the un-Americanism of nonbelief.
But the winds of change roiling scouting may be at work even on the God front, for recently there has been a tiny crack in the wall keeping out nonbelievers. The BSA in 2016 entered into an agreement with the Unitarian Universalist Association giving ultimate authority over a scout’s spiritual commitment to their individual congregation. This would specifically allow Unitarian Universalist-sponsored troops to claim humanism as an acceptable form of spirituality.
Perhaps it’s this concession to a small number of nonbelieving scouts that led the Mormon Church to go its own way in scouting. Opening the Boy Scouts to gay, transgender, and girl members and now even to humanists will have its founder, Robert Baden-Powell, turning over in his grave, however the Girl Scout suit works out. Did he not write in the first Boy Scout handbook in 1908, “No man is much good unless he believes in God and obeys His will”?