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© St. Petersburg Times, published November 17, 2002
My history with Boy Scouting is spotty.
I was an excellent Cub Scout but languished for two years as a Tenderfoot (the lowest rank) Boy Scout before I could finally convince a scoutmaster that hot dog stew qualified me to pass the cooking portion of the test for advancement.
In all, though, it was a positive experience, and I hold no real grief for or against the organization.
But a lot of my friends are betting that I will come down hard in defense of Darrell Lambert, the Eagle Scout in Washington state who thinks his atheism shouldn't disqualify him from scouting.
I strongly support Lambert's right to his atheism and his right to belong to any private organization that does not make belief in a supreme being a stated qualification for membership.
I, likewise, support the Boy Scouts of America, a private organization, in its right to make religious belief a membership requirement.
And, finally, I strongly support my right, and that of others, to withhold financial and other support from organizations or businesses that discriminate against anyone because of race, religious belief, nationality, gender or sexual orientation.
I don't think the courts should have forced the issue with Rotary clubs, for instance, as they did decades ago. I think society should have. Basically, businesses that treat the public as "business invitees" are a different matter and were properly forced to abandon most discriminatory practices.
In most cases, decency and common sense -- and profit -- have prevailed, and discrimination has all but disappeared, although the occasional high visibility cases like those of some restaurant chains grab our attention every once in awhile.
The Boy Scouts also discriminate against gays, and, again, I strongly disagree with that policy.
But as long as there are no laws prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians in most locations, they are doing nothing illegal, and there is no legal mechanism to force change.
Like it or not, Boy Scouts take an oath to "to do my duty to God and my country," and to "obey the Scout Law."
One of the provisions of the Scout law calls for the Scout to be "reverent," and adds, "A Scout is reverent toward God. He is faithful in his religious duties."
Whether atheists believe in oaths or see the recitations as simply a promise, Scouts do promise to do their duty to a supreme being and to be reverent toward one.
Ironically, the law goes on to state that a Scout "respects the beliefs of others," but the organization apparently means only some others.
With all of that going on, it isn't too much of a stretch to see the Boy Scouts as a faith-based organization and -- despite the president's efforts to obscure the lines between them and government -- faith based organizations are not governmental and they retain, in large part, the right to discriminate.
And discrimination is still around. Bob Jones University dropped its ban on interracial dating only two years ago. There still aren't any Hooters' boys; gays are still not protected from discrimination in most of the country, and you may have seen a female SEAL in the movies, but don't look to see one on the business end of a submachine gun any time soon.
If the young man in the extant case publicly lied about his religious beliefs en route to attaining his current rank, he seems to have also forgotten the "honor" part of his oath. If he had resigned or refused to join because of the Scouts' anti-atheist stance, it would be different. When his beliefs changed, recently, he should have either resigned or prepared himself for what eventually happened.
It is for all of us to weigh the good things that organizations do -- and scouting is replete with them -- against the things about them we may disapprove of, and to tailor our support accordingly.
I may choose not to give money to the Boy Scouts, or to organizations that give money to them, because of their policies toward gays and atheists, but that is a long stretch from thinking the Legislature or courts should force them to change.
Likewise, I wouldn't play golf, or join or attend an event at Augusta National Golf Club, which won't allow female members. They are within their rights, but I would choose to vote with my wallet. To rewrite Groucho Marx, who wants to belong to an organization that wouldn't have them?