ACLU threat causes Boy Scouts to drop public school ties

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--The Boy Scouts of America is removing the charters of thousands of scouting units from public schools after an American Civil Liberties Union threat to sue taxpayer-funded institutions that charter BSA units.

The ACLU sent a letter to the Boy Scouts of America in February threatening legal action against public schools and other governmental agencies that charter Boy Scout groups on grounds that their sponsorship amounts to religious discrimination and violates the separation of church and state.

Boy Scouts open their meetings by holding three fingers aloft and repeating an oath in which members vow their allegiance to God and country, resolve to help others and commit to keeping themselves morally straight. Central to the BSA's stated mission is character development and values-based leadership training.

ACLU leaders view these conservative emphases as warrant for legal action, according to documents on the ACLU website.

While BSA is continuing to assess the number of Boy Scout and Cub Scout units that will be affected, BSA national spokesman Gregg Shields said units whose charters will be pulled from public schools would number in the thousands. BSA is America's largest youth organization that includes thousands of units and 1.3 million adult volunteers.

Defending against a wave of ACLU lawsuits would cost schools untold thousands of dollars, Shields said. Instead of risking financially draining litigation, the BSA is pulling scout units from schools as a matter of stewardship, he said.

"We obviously don't want that [expensive lawsuits against schools] to happen," Shields said. "Instead, the Boy Scouts have tried to protect the resources of our education partners by moving our charter from public schools to other community-based organizations such as parent-teacher organizations or Salvation Army units or nearby religious organizations."

Shields said the Boy Scouts of America is counting on community organizations such as churches to take up the charters of scouting units that have been removed from public schools and other governmental organizations.

Removal of a scouting unit's charter from a school will not necessarily remove its presence from the school, Shields said, noting that groups will still have access to public school facilities; they just won't be chartered by the schools.

"Boy Scout troops will still have the same rights as any other community-based group to meet in school buildings, but the charter will not be held by the school administration," he said.

"We hope to make this a seamless transition that won't even be noticed by the youth and barely noticed by our 1.3 million generous volunteers who give their time to help American youth," Shields said.

Shields said community groups already have begun to fill the void left by the shift from public school charters. While many churches already sponsor Cub Scout packs, Shields urges many others to get involved in all levels of scouting, an institution whose core values can fit well within the standards of most conservative evangelical congregations.

Churches can help in two ways, he said: by seeking to pick up a scout unit charter from a local school or by starting a new scout troop. He pointed out that charters involve very little money and merely provide individual units with an official place to meet and organize their activities.

"[Chartering a scouting unit] is not a complicated process," Shields said. "Many churches find scouting so in line with the mission of the church that they'll use Boy Scouting as an auxiliary to their youth program.... The values of the Boy Scouts certainly fit well with my church and I think they would most others."

The ACLU's threat also precludes other government organizations such as police, fire and recreation departments from holding charters for scouting units. BSA will seek groups such as fire and police department auxiliaries to pick up these charters, Shields said. But far more scout units are chartered by public schools than other governmental agencies, he said.

The latest threat of litigation is the latest chapter in a 25-year assault the ACLU has waged against the Boy Scouts. The ACLU has sued BSA 14 times over the past 25 years using similar accusations, Shields said.

The most widely publicized case involved a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2000 upholding a New Jersey troop's removal of an assistant scoutmaster after it became known that the man was an avowed homosexual. Despite the legal victory, the ACLU and other scouting opponents have continued their efforts across the country.

Last fall, the ACLU threatened to sue the U.S. Department of Defense for chartering BSA units, causing the Pentagon to drop its BSA sponsorships.

By attempting to remove Boy Scouts from public schools, the ACLU is attempting to undermine an organization that has exerted an overwhelmingly positive influence on millions of school-aged children, Shields said.

"For decades, many, many school administrators, teachers and parents have recognized the benefits of having a scouting program in their institutions," he said. "Those involved in scouting have become better citizens and students because of the opportunity.

"However, the ACLU has ignored the schools' and the parents' rights to choose to participate or not in Boy Scouts. No one is forced to join Boy Scouts. Let's say a child has parents who are atheists. Nobody will force that child to join the Boy Scouts. Most Americans and the vast majority of parents value their freedom to choose [to participate in] the Boy Scouts and [support] the values they stand for."