Have the Boy Scouts
Few of us would debate the potential value of the Boy Scouting program for young people. At the unit level, dedicated Scouters help youth develop a set of values that will stand them well throughout their lives. Few would debate that there are many professionals in the Scouting program who are equally dedicated as well. However, there have been a number of problems that have taken place in the past few years that have left the National Scouting Movement under a cloud of uncertainty as to the future of the program. Supreme Court decisions, membership scandals, illegal activities by Scout officials, fiscal problems, scandals involving specific individuals and unethical actions taken by various Scout Councils against individual members have combined to raise serious doubts about the direction of the movement. I have done a considerable amount of research into this recent history, and have attempted to summarize my findings on this website. Wherever possible, I have included references for the material cited. Much (but not all) of the information was found on the following Web sites:
www.bsa-discrimination.org - Wealth of well organized information (history, funding, schools, religious groups)
www.scoutingforall.org - Home page of Scouting for All (news, links, letters, case studies, national activities)
www.charitynavigator.org - Financial analyses of charitable organizations (National and local Council finances)
www.govtrack.us - Tracks Congressional activities relating to the BSA ("plain language" summaries, updates)
www.religioustolerance.org - History of BSA intolerance 1998-Present (legal issues, funding, religious groups)
I plan to update this site frequently to keep the information current, so check back frequently.
The information is organized under the following headings:
A Brief History of the Boy Scouts of America
Supreme Court, State Court and Other Legal Decisions
Legally Irresponsible Decisions,Unethical & Allegedly Illegal Business Deals
BSA Removes Scouters from the Movement
BSA Removes Gay and Atheist Youth
National Financial Woes
What Congress Can Do
What Can I do?
A Brief History of the Boy Scouts of America (how we got where we are today)
The Boy Scouts of America was first incorporated in 1910, and in its early years tried to pitch as wide a tent as possible. To some extent, this inclusiveness stemmed from the need to expand its membership base in order to win exclusive rights to the Boy Scouts name (the Hearst newspaper chain was planning a rival organization at the same time). But financial imperatives dovetailed nicely with ideological ones: The BSA's founders were concerned by a perceived crisis of youth caused in part by a burgeoning immigrant population, urban poverty, and the broader moral perils of modernity. One BSA elder complained that the nation was suffering from "City rot" and described American adolescents as "a lot of flat-chested cigarette smokers, with shaky nerves and a doubtful vitality." Scouting would train these youths - in the words of the national charter granted to the BSA by Congress in 1916 - in the "patriotism, courage, self-reliance, and kindred virtues" necessary for an enlightened citizenry. To become a truly national institution - as well as one dedicated to a nationalistic ideal - the BSA appreciated that it needed a representative membership.
In that vein, the organization emphasized uniformity, middle-class values, and diversified outreach. Foreign-language troops were discouraged; a Committee on Americanization edited theScout Law to remove references to class conflict inherited from its British antecedent; and in 1919 the BSA's Fifth Avenue office hired a field director to establish troops in the under-represented South and West. And though in the 1920s the BSA leadership tilted rightward (in 1919 the BSA's executive secretary suggested that scout-training might prevent Bolshevism), headquarters forbade any explicit political involvement and settled for an aggressive, ethnically neutral American chauvinism.
If today the BSA seems mired in a controversy over religious principle, in its earlier years the organization avoided any such denominational strife. Scouting in France, where Catholics, Protestants, and secularists had split into their own programs, was a sound warning of the alternative. And so, though the BSA was initially linked closely to the Protestant YMCA, it espoused a strict ecumenism based on a vaguely articulated but potent American deism. The BSA's commitment to religious pluralism was clearly spelled out in its 1917 "Declaration of Religious Principle": "The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no boy can grow into the best kind of citizenship without recognizing his obligation to God.... The Boy Scouts of America, therefore, recognizes the religious element in the training of a boy, but it is absolutely non-sectarian in its attitude toward that training."
In fact, at first the BSA's efforts to transcend religious and ethnic particularism scared off some conservative denominations, such as Lutherans, Catholics, and Mormons, according David Macleod's Building Character in the American Boy: The Boy Scouts, YMCA, and Their Forerunners. But assimilationist pressures soon won these groups over, and by 1921 Catholics boasted the third-most troops of any denomination. For the Mormons, participation in the Boy Scouts became a way to convince suspicious mainline denominations of their Americanism. (By 1913 Scouting had become the official youth program of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.) The BSA, writes Macleod, favored a "'civil religion' - not as a prophetic faith, standing in judgment upon actual American practices, but as a celebration of the American way of life." With its good works on the home front during both world wars (during World War I, Scouts sold more than $350 million in war bonds and distributed some 20 million government flyers), the Boy Scouts became one of the chief symbols of American patriotism; by 1955 the group could claim nearly 4.2 million members. And if the nation's living rooms had continued to look like those on the covers of The Saturday Evening Post, membership probably would have climbed steadily and with little contest.
That was not to be. The Boy Scouts as we currently know it, as an actively conservative body, emerged from the 1960s, a decade that challenged its institutional essence, its code of discipline, proud conformity, and devotion to country. Suddenly, it was no longer 'hip' to wear the khaki uniform. In desperation, the Cub Scouts removed the pledge "To be Square" from its Promise, while the Boy Scouts wondered aloud, in the words of a 1968 survey it commissioned, "Is Scouting In Tune with the Times?" Concerned that the answer might be "no," in 1972 the BSA revised its official Handbook. Sections on canoeing and rope-lashing were replaced with passages on urban hiking, drug abuse, and public speaking, and the organization made a concerted effort to recruit more minorities. But these efforts at relevance did little to correct stagnating membership, which declined for the first time in 1969 and plummeted in the early '70s; the Boy Scouts lost nearly one-third of its participants between 1973 and 1980. So the national leadership reverted to the old formula, issuing another Handbook revision in 1979 that returned the emphasis to camping skills and outdoor activities.
But as the organization rededicated itself to whittling and knot-tying, it also began to orient itself in the contemporary political landscape and to assert itself as a combatant in the culture war. Previously, the Boy Scouts had maintained a decorous silence about sexuality; according to the 1972 Scoutmaster's Handbook, Scoutmasters should "not undertake to instruct Scouts, in any formalized manner, in the subject of sex and family life.... [I]t is not construed to be Scouting's proper area." Some of this was the residual prudishness of the organization's Edwardian founders. But the Boy Scouts also did not want to isolate the more conservative religious denominations that sponsored troops, who (ironically, given their current insistence that the BSA explicitly endorse certain sexual norms) worried that any official BSA position on sexuality would impinge on their own efforts at moral education. So, as with religion and politics, except for a few perfunctory references, the BSA was happy to leave the topic of sex to a boy's parents or clergyman.
To be sure, this official silence frequently cloaked unofficial discrimination. As the BSA pointed out almost giddily in its Supreme Court brief, until 1979 homosexual sodomy was a criminal offense in New Jersey, the state whose 1991 antidiscrimination laws formed the basis for gay Assistant Scoutmaster James Dale's Supreme Court challenge. Moreover, since its founding, the BSA was plagued by fears that scout leaders might molest their young charges, and avowed homosexuals were considered the most likely to do so. As James Tarr, the chief scout executive in the late '70s, recently recounted to Rolling Stone, "If you had a person you knew was a homosexual, you would confront them, and they would resign quietly."
But precisely because such homophobia was informal, other troops were free to interpret the Scouts' principles as consistent with a progressive world-view. Looking back on his days as a scout in New Jersey in the '40s and as a professional district executive for the BSA in Long Island in the '50s, David Napp, a retired Connecticut book salesman, acknowledges that some of his co-workers were probably gay. But "the issue never really came up in all the years I was in scouting as a boy or as a leader." In 1993, after the Boy Scouts discovered that Napp himself was homosexual - he claims he was not yet publicly out of the closet - he was dismissed from the organization. Napp now views his early years in scouting nostalgically: "[E]ven in the '30s, [the BSA] was really open to all boys.... We had boys who were fat, boys who were clods, boys who were nerds, we had black kids." Mike Montalvo, a scout in the late '60s in Dallas, concurs, recalling that in his troop it was generally known that one of his Scoutmasters' sons, also in the troop, was gay. "It was something that was known, but it wasn't talked about."
But amid the cultural conflict of the '70s, such silence became untenable. The gay rights movement began to demand a response to the discrimination that the Boy Scouts tacitly allowed, and several high-profile cases of child abuse by scout leaders inflamed the national leadership's homophobia. (Especially devastating was the 1977 trial of a group of New Orleans scout leaders who formed a troop to serve as a pedophiliac sex ring.) And so, in 1978, the national organization offered its first official, if barely publicized, disavowal of homosexuality: The president and chief Scout executive notified the organization's executive committee that the BSA does "not believe that homosexuality and leadership in Scouting are appropriate." The following year, for the first time, the BSA insinuated sexual politics into the 1979 Handbook. Whereas the Handbook had previously associated "morally straight" (a phrase from the Scout Oath) with respect for others, it now invoked heterosexuality: "When you live up to the trust of fatherhood your sex life will fit into God's wonderful plan of creation."
That same year brought another symbolic affirmation of this realignment: After a quarter-century in New Brunswick, New Jersey, the BSA moved its headquarters to Irving, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. Ostensibly, the BSA moved for lower rents and the convenient location near a major airport, but many saw it as part of a larger demographic and cultural redefinition. During the group's membership skid in the '70s - which was most pronounced in the Northeast - enrollment remained steady only in the Rocky Mountain region, where numbers were buoyed by the steady participation of 250,000 Mormons, whose percentage in the organization quadrupled from 1920 to 1980, to nearly 20 percent.
It was as if the BSA had decided that the terrain it had previously staked out - that broad national consensus - was suddenly uninhabitable and chose to decamp to the narrower territory of the traditionalists instead. So, even in 1986, when the Boy Scouts, citing a study of convicted child molesters, admitted that avowed homosexuals were no more dangerous than heterosexuals, they still rejected gays, pointing to the threat they posed to the traditional family. By 1991 the BSA had retreated so far from its big-tent roots that, when a California appellate court struck down the complaint of a gay Berkeley Eagle Scout who was rejected as a Scoutmaster, Scouting officials could explain, "We are a private organization aimed at traditional families." A few months later, the BSA's national spokesman elaborated: "We're not saying that Scouting values are for every person in society to live by." That same year those traditional values were further clarified when, with a bit of exegetical legerdemain, the BSA declared that homosexuality not only conflicted with the Scout Oath's injunction to be "morally straight" but also with the ideal of "cleanliness" featured in the Scout Law.
These explicit policies have made the Boy Scouts a safe haven for the conservative, centralized denominations that were once wary of it. The Church of Latter-day Saints now sponsors more troops than any other single institution. In fact, religious bodies now sponsor 65 percent of all troops, compared with just over 40 percent 15 years ago. And, according to some observers of the BSA's bureaucracy, the real clout within the organization now lies not with the national executive board, made up mostly of corporate executives, but with the relationships committee, which comprises representatives from all the major sponsoring institutions and which is dominated by religious groups. As Chuck Wolfe, a former member of the national executive board, told The Advocate magazine last year, "The real driving force is the relationships committee.... That's where the money comes from."
And, indeed, a significant part of that money comes from the Mormons. This grants the Church of Latter-day Saints substantial leverage with the national leadership. As one scout leader told Newsweek this year, "There is an unadulterated fear that [the Mormons are] going to bail out, that they're going to start their own program." The Mormons have invoked their power in the current controversy, threatening to withdraw their 412,000 boys if gay scout leaders are allowed to participate. "[T]he Scouting Movement as now constituted will cease to exist," Von G. Keetch, attorney for the Church of Latter-day Saints, threatened in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court last year, suggesting that other conservative religious denominations might follow the Mormons' lead.
Liberal groups within the Boy Scouts have countered the BSA's increasing identification with the religious right by invoking the organization's ecumenical past. As University of California at Davis Professor Jay Mechling writes in the soon-to-be-published On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth, "To maintain the position that homosexuality is immoral amounts to preferring some religions over others on this matter." The BSA "is acting like a church and is departing from the founders' principles." In fact, in an amicus brief submitted to the Supreme Court, a number of more liberal denominations (including the United Methodist Church, Reform Judaism, and the Episcopal Diocese of Newark) pointed out that they - along with governmental sponsors - represent nearly 60 percent of all troops. "Contrary to [the BSA's] assertions ... our boys and young men do not participate in the Boy Scouts for the purpose of expressing the view that gay boys and men are immoral," they wrote. "It is our boys and young men that the BSA seeks to exclude from our Scout troops." This January the Union of American Hebrew Congregations - Reform Judaism's governing body - called on its congregants to withdraw their children from Boy Scout troops, stating that the BSA's position is "incompatible with our consistent belief that every individual - regardless of his or her sexual orientation - is created in the image of God."
But perhaps no religious group has challenged the Boy Scouts' fundamentalism as vigorously as the Unitarian Universalists, a progressive denomination with some 217,000 members in North America. In 1992, in protest over the BSA's position on homosexuality, the Unitarians withdrew as an official sponsor, though individual churches still maintained troops. Then, in 1998, the BSA refused to rubber-stamp the "Religion in Life Award," the Unitarians' version of the decoration given to scouts by their sponsoring church based on the fulfillment of certain religious obligations. Historically the Boy Scouts have deferred to the religious institutions in the creation and conferring of the award. But, in this case, they objected to the inclusion, in the award's instruction manual, of material spelling out the Unitarians' "ongoing concern regarding the homophobic and discriminatory attitudes of the [BSA's] national leadership." A BSA spokesman claimed that the language "was just not consistent with Scouting's values, particularly regarding the commitment to duty to God and traditional family values." The president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Reverend John Buehrens (who was himself a Life Scout), disagrees. He believes the BSA simply "knuckled under to political pressure by those who pay the bills." Many Unitarian leaders, however, believing that scouting was worth saving, handed out the award anyway, without authorization.
Which begs the question: Is scouting worth the fight? The answer is yes. For, even in its tarnished state, the Boy Scouts does bring together boys from diverse economic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, providing, in Robert Putnam's terms, "bridging social capital." Just witness the quadrennial National Jamboree, where scouts from Massachusetts and scouts from Utah fished, traded badges, and worked and prayed together.
Until society, and the Boy Scouts with it, comes to a consensus about the equality of gays and lesbians, liberals should work to decentralize the BSA - allowing different troops to define their own moral and sexual rules, as they effectively did for most of the organization's history. As Jay Mechling writes, "[T]he Boys Scouts of America - that is, the legal corporation and the bureaucrats working in the office buildings of the national office and the council offices - is not the 'real' Boy Scouts in the sense that a boy experiences Scouting through a concrete group of men and boys." Conservatives might be hard-pressed to oppose this sort of local-control argument. Certainly, it made its appearance at the Jamboree, where several scouts expressed displeasure that headquarters was intruding on their troops' territory. "People think we're homophobic, but we have no power over that. It's all the head council," explained 14-year-old Joe Paul, a red-haired, freckled scout from Travis City, Michigan.
And decentralization is catching on among some scouting officials as well. This June representatives from nine of the largest metropolitan Boy Scout councils - Boston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, West Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Orange County - proposed leaving membership policies to the local sponsoring institutions. Says Mike Harrison, former chairman of the Orange County Council, "To me, one of the strengths of the organization is that it has always been able to accommodate differing viewpoints, and the present position is totally inconsistent with that. We want to get the tribe back on track."
Of course, remaining in the Boy Scouts
would require liberals to tolerate a degree of moral
discomfort. It would also require faith in the nation's
moral progress: that the BSA will, over time, come to see
nondiscrimination as the principle that best honors
scouting's heritage. And it would require a belief that
the Boy Scouts, by joining together children of different
backgrounds in "a brotherhood of youth," can
help achieve that progress. Should that time come,
liberals, by refusing to abandon the organization even
when it seems to have abandoned them, will - in the best
tradition of the Scouts - be prepared. (The New
Republic, September 17, 2001; Benjamin Soskis)
Supreme Court, State Court and Other Legal Decisions
Click on the "BSA-discrimination" link above and select the "BSA in the courts" link on the left for more cases.
Philly Mayor John Street Evicts
Scouts - Mayor John Street ended a three-year
debate with the Cradle of Liberty Council of the BSA when
he announced that the council would be evicted from the
Center City headquarters building that the city has
provided rent-free since 1928 if it does not end its
policy of banning gays from membership. City Solicitor
Romulo Diaz sent Scout Executive William Dwyer, III a
letter informing him that the council office would be
evicted or charged rent on a "free-market
basis" if the policy were not changed immediately.
Summary of 2006 Legal Issues - Six
years after the Supreme Court ruled the Boy Scouts could
ban gay leaders, the group is fighting and losing legal
battles with state and local governments over its
BSA Wins One in Circuit Court - Two religious leaders brought suit to halt the Pentagon from supporting the National Jamboree. The grounds for the suit was the fact that the BSA discriminates against atheists. The Seventh Circuit Court dismissed the suit stating that "taxing and spending legislation was not subject to lawsuits brought by taxpayers." What further actions would be brought by the ACLU was non known. (Associated Press, April 5, 2007)
World Organization of the Scouting Movement (WOSM) in Crisis - Twelve National Scouting Organizations (NSOs) confronted the WOSM in an open letter dated October 19, 2007, demanding improved financial accountability. The BSA went further, insisting that Secretary General Eduardo Missoni be fired. The BSA threatened to cease paying dues to the WOSM unless Missoni was dismissed. BSA dues to the WOSM represent 39% of the operating budget of the organization. An emergency meeting of the World Scouting Council, the governing body of the WOSM, was held in Cairo, Egypt on November 12, 2007. Missoni was dismissed effective November 30. The Council also agreed to address the other complaints summarized in the original open letter. (BSA Today exclusive, November 28, 2007)
Berkeley Sea Scout Leader Accused of Molesting Teens - Berkeley police arrested 64-year-old Sea Scout leader Eugene Evans on six felony counts of sexual assault on Sea Scouts aged 13 to 17. The alleged assaults had been going on for "several years." Evans had been the skipper of the group's boat the Farallon for 35 years. He led the unsuccessful 2006 law suit against the city of Berkeley for revoking the city-funded berth at the marina because of the BSA discrimination policy against gays and atheists. The suit had made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which held in favor of the city. (Doug Oakley, Mercury News, December 4, 2007)
Boy Scouts Lose Philadelphia Lease After Three Year Battle - Philadelphia municipal officials have cancelled the lease held by the Cradle of Liberty Council on the Beaux Arts Building since 1929. The Council had access to the building for a nominal rent of $1 per year. They must vacate the building by June 1, 2008. (Ian Urbina, International Herald Tribune, December 6, 2007)
Los Angeles Police Department Ends Sponsorship of Explorer Posts - The LAPD eliminated all Law Enforcement Explorer Posts and replaced them with similar police youth groups. The Los Angeles City Council noted that the Explorer Program is offered through Learning for Life, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Boy Scouts of America. Although Learning for Life claims that it does not practice discrimination, its parent organization does actively discriminate against gays and atheists. Provisions of the City Charter forbid city agencies from entering into contracts with organizations that practice discrimination. The City Council ruled that these provisions precluded the City from dealing with Learning for Life. (ABC News, November 29, 2009)
Boy Scouts Granted Permanent Injunction against City of Philadelphia - After the Cradle of Liberty Council lost its lease to the Beaux Arts Building which it had leased from the City of Philadelphia since 1929, it obtained a temporary injunction that kept the City from evicting them pending action in Federal Court. The case finally came before a jury in 2010. The jury found that the City should not be allowed to evict the Scouts from their long-term headquarters. City Solicitor Shelly Smith cited numerous inconsistincies in the jury responses to eleven questions posed on jury verdict sheets that would not support their verdict. An appeal is likely, expecially in light of the Supreme Court finding noted below. (Nathan Gorenstein, Philadelphia Inquirer, June 23, 2010)
Supreme Court Finds That Law School Can't Be Forced to Host Student Group That Discriminates - By a 5-4 margin, the Supreme Court held that the University of California (Hastings) Law School, which has a strict non-discrimination policy, could not be forced to allow the Christian Legal Society (CLS), a student group that discriminates against lesbians and gays, to meet in law school classrooms. The CLS had argued that the law school was violating their First Amendment right to free speech and free association by denying them access to school facilities. Obviously, the Supreme Court felt that there were many other facilities where the CLS could practice those rights. (San Francisco Citizen, June 28, 2010)
Legally Irresponsible Decisions, Unethical & Allegedly Illegal Business Deals
Fatal and Potentially Fatal Decisions at Jamboree - Four Scouters from Alaska were electrocuted on the first day of the 2005 National Jamboree as they were helping contractors erect a tentpole for their dining shelter. The area assigned them was beneath a high voltage electical line. They were killed instantly when the pole struck the line. Two days later 300 Scouts collapsed from heat exhaustion as they awaited the arrival of President Bush, who was to speak to the assembled Jamboree. (Fox News, 8/2/05, Wendy McElroy)
Those responsible for assigning campsites for the Jamboree should never have allowed the Alaska group to camp under a power line. It is stated BSA practice that groups are not be located under power lines or directly beneath trees. It is totally irresponsible to keep 32,000 Scouts and Scouters in the un-shaded A.P. Hill amphitheater waiting for more than 2 hours in the blazing heat that is to be expected in Virginia in mid-summer. The BSA teaches how to avoid heat exhaustion. Why didn't it follow its own teachings? Mercifully, Bush re-scheduled his speech for early evening the following Sunday.
BSA, Learning for Life and
BSA Foundation Involved in Unethical, Allegedly Illegal
Business Deals - When
people think of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), they
usually picture Tiger Cubs, Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts or
Venture Scouts. These groups constitute the Traditional
Scouting Program operated by the National Council of the
Boy Scouts of America. The BSA formed a separate
corporation, Learning for Life, Inc., to operate two
additional programs, the Learning for Life Program and
the Exploring Program, that are quite different from the
Traditional Scouting Program. The Learning for Life
Program is a curriculum supplements program that is used
in classrooms to improve the academic performance and
life skills of mostly inner city youth in kindergarten
through high school. The Exploring Program offers
career-awareness activities in twelve career areas.
Estimates for BSA Traditional Program and Learning for
In 2010 the BSA changed the way it
operates Learning for Life by requiring that local
councils license Learning for Life from the National
Council. Local councils, in turn, sell Learning for Life
materials to schools and other end users. Many local
councils further complicated matters by forming
non-profit corporations to handle Learning for Life as a
charitable service to local schools. This approach makes
it virtually impossible to track profits earned by both
the National Council and the local councils associated
with Learning for Life. In earlier times, National
licensed the individual school districts and sold
Learning for Life materials to them using local councils
as agents of the national office. This approach made
tracking the profitability of Learning for Life much
easier, as illustrated in the example cited above for
Southwestern Scouter - A Southwestern Scouter was removed when he questioned his local Council's accouting after the 2005 Jamboree. After his ouster, the Council quietly granted a sizable rebate to all participants.
Midwestern Scouter - A
Midwestern Scouter was removed when he questioned his
Troop Committee about the credentials of an individual
the Committee was considering for the Scoutmaster
Long-term Employee Fired - Dennis St.Jean was a BSA professional for 32 years. He had been given numerous promotions over the years. In 2000 he took over as the General Manager of the Sea Base in the Florida Keys. In this position, he managed a seasonal staff of as many as 2000 employees. He took a recent vacation to the Lighthouse Court Gay Guesthouses in Key West. Within a week after his return, he received a letter from Douglas Smith at National notifying him that he was no longer employed by the BSA. (By the way, Douglas Smith was charged with trafficking in kiddy porn two weeks after he fired St. Jean.) St. Jean hadn't told anyone on the staff of Sea Base of his vacation plans, however, evidently a disgruntled employee had found his room receipt and sent it to the BSA. Thus far, St.Jean has had no success in negotiating a financial settlement with the BSA based on "wrongful termination." To make life worse, he was within two years of retirement. He now plans to sue based on a Monroe County, Florida ordinance that prohibits employment discrimination based on sexual preferences. (Mother Jones, 8/2/05, Clint Hender)
Dennis St. Jean was neither a known nor
an avowed homosexual. He kept his private life
"private" for the 32 years he worked for the
BSA, and yet he was fired based on information that the
BSA obtained by unethical means. So much for the BSA
protects the privacy of its
Comments, feedback or problems? Please contact the Webmaster.
Last modified 5/13/11