CHICAGO — The U.S. military surrendered Nov. 15 — to the American Civil Liberties Union. That's when the Pentagon warned its bases not to sponsor Boy Scout troops.
Most Scout troops have institutional sponsors. In spite of longstanding rules prohibiting direct sponsorship of outside groups, the military has often sponsored troops on bases, especially overseas when no other sponsor is available.
But under the terms of an agreement reached with the ACLU in Chicago, the Pentagon is now warning bases not to do so any longer. It would be unconstitutional, the ACLU says, because the Boy Scouts require members to believe in God.
The city of Chicago also promised not to officially support the Boy Scouts in order to resolve a significant portion of the ACLU's complaint. Still to be worked out are issues related to government Scout-related expenditures at Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia, where the Boy Scouts Jamboree is held every four years.
The 1999 lawsuit by the ACLU took issue with government expenditures favoring the Boy Scouts because of the requirement of a belief in God and its exclusion of openly homosexual members and troop leaders. According to the Boy Scouts, the impact will be minimal — though many within and outside the nearly-95-year-old organization have expressed dismay and anger at the ACLU's tactics.
The Boy Scouts have long had to defend against the ACLU — whose fees are paid in certain cases by taxpayer dollars. In 2000, the Supreme Court upheld the organization's right to exclude members who don't believe in God or who are homosexual.
“The moral compass of the ACLU is turned around 180 degrees,” said Bob Bork, a spokesman for the Boy Scouts of America in Washington, D.C. “They don't believe in free speech for the Boy Scouts, but they will defend a nudist colony in Virginia that wants to have unsupervised nudity of kids.”
“I thought (the ACLU) had given up, but they are still at it,” said Father Jim Maher, a member of the Los Angeles Archdiocesan Committee on Scouting and a priest at St. Maximilian Kolbe Church in Thousand Oaks, Calif. He said that before he was contacted by the Register, the Committee on Catholic Scouting was “unaware that this action was still pending.”
“Our experience with the ACLU goes back decades. The ACLU is like a dog with a bone; they just have to keep coming after the Boy Scouts,” Bork said. “It's amazing that they don't have other things to worry about.”
According to Bork, there has been a great deal of outrage against the ACLU as a result of their continual attacks on the Boy Scouts.
“People want to know why the ACLU is continuing to chase after the Boy Scouts,” Bork said. “They are furious about what the ACLU is doing.”
The ACLU office in Chicago could not be reached for comment, but in a statement concerning the settlement, Adam Schwartz of the ACLU of Illinois said: “If our Constitution's promise of religious liberty is to be a reality, the government should not be administering religious oaths or discriminating based upon religious beliefs.”
Interestingly, the military will continue to administer such oaths. The oath taken at the start of one's military service includes the words “so help me God.”
“This agreement removes the Pentagon from direct sponsorship of Scout troops that engage in such discrimination,” Schwarz said.
But there never was a constitutional problem and the ACLU has “overstated its victory,” according to John Eastman, a constitutional law expert and law professor at Chapman University in Southern California.
Eastman said the military was only barred from activities with the Boy Scouts in an official capacity, “but continues to permit the ongoing sponsorship by (military) officers in their personal capacity, and to continue to allow Boy Scout troops to use base facilities — and it is perfectly constitutional to do so.”
Allowing military officers to sponsor Boy Scout troops in their official capacity is also entirely constitutional, he said.
The Defense Department admitted no guilt in the sponsorship part of the case. It will also continue hosting the Jamboree.
According to Charles Miller, a spokesman for the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., the settlement represents “a clarification of a pre-existing rule” banning the sponsorship of any outside group by the military. “This rule has been on the books for a long time,” Miller said. “There can be no official sponsorship, but individuals (in the military) can obviously participate,” he said.
“We understand that the military had regulations about sponsorship of non-military organizations,” agreed Bork, “and these regulations existed before, so they gave the ACLU a chance to take another shot at the Boy Scouts.”
Bork said the Scouts have “shifted sponsorship from a small number of military bases to non-military groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars.”
He added that he thinks the Scouts will prevail on the issues related to the Jamboree.
But even if individual Scouts remain largely unaffected, the impact nationally could be significant. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist introduced a bill Nov. 20 that would permit federal support for the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. It failed, but Frist said he would reintroduce it in the next Congress.
“Scouting is a noble and honorable tradition that inculcates the very best of our values,” Frist said in a statement. While acknowledging the importance of the separation of church and state in the United States, he said, “the ACLU's continued attacks on the Boy Scouts are starting to become its own form of persecution.”
“Of course, the Scouts group has every right to set its own membership standards as a private organization, yet the ACLU wants to impose atheism… upon it,” said the Rev. Lou Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, in a statement. “The ACLU has a godless agenda and has no interest in preserving religious liberty or freedom of association.”
The implication of this settlement “could mean that no one could place his hand on the Bible when he swears an oath in court or in congressional hearings,” he said. Rev. Sheldon warned that “Congress could be forced to shut down the offices of the Senate and House chaplains, and that the Supreme Court's decision upholding ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance is really invalid for all practical purposes.”
Andrew Walther filed this story from Chicago.
Wire services contributed to this report.