One of the talks at the convention was Katherine Stewart’s about the Good News club and what it means; another was Margaret Downey’s about the Boy Scouts of America’s rejection of atheism and atheists. Katherine Stewart had a piece on the latter subject in the Guardian about ten days ago.
The BSA sent out a questionnaire recently to assess attitudes to its anti-gay policies.
There is a certain irony, of course, in using a questionnaire to establish individual rights. After all, the point of rights is to protect individuals and minorities against the tyranny of a majority. The irony is compounded by the fact that the Boy Scouts claims to be an organization dedicated to moral principles.
A similar irony is at work in the atheist (or skeptical) movement right now, in which one faction insists that treating women as equals is an “imposition” of a political ideology on unwilling victims. Yeah no. It’s not as if equal rights or equality or egalitarianism is an ideology while its opposite isn’t. I don’t want the ideology of not treating women as equals, either, so stalemate, so let’s choose the better option.
the questionnaire, like much of the coverage surrounding it, is silent about the role of religion in shaping the Boy Scout’s discriminatory policies in another area, one that is distinct from and yet intimately connected with its bigotry toward gay people.
Adult leaders in the Boy Scouts must sign a Declaration of Religious Principles, and Scouts must take an oath “to do my duty to God”. Both adults and children can and have been excluded from the organization for lack of belief in a supreme being (or beings). Neil Polzin, who had been in the Scouts for nearly two decades, says he was fired in 2009 from his job as an aquatics director at a Boy Scout camp and told to “sever any ties” with the organization after his superiors found out about his non-belief.
Even the irreligion of parents can be a basis for excluding children from the group. In 1991, 12-year-old scout Matthew Schottmiller was not allowed to renew his membership after it was learned that he was raised in a non-theist household. His mother, Margaret Downey – who was rearing her son to be a freethinker – filed suit. But the supreme court ruled in 2000 that, as a private organization, the Boy Scouts is free to decide their own membership criteria.
The supreme court is right – at least, in some sense. In the US, private groups can and should be allowed to control their membership without legal interference. On the other hand, private groups aren’t necessarily entitled to a congressional charter, regular support from government agencies, and endorsement from government officials – all of which the Boy Scouts do enjoy.
Also lots of respect and status and deference, all of which are open to debate given their warm embrace of religious and anti-gay bigotry.