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On Their Honor

Has the Media Told the Whole Truth about the BSA-UUA Dispute?

By Mathew Goldstein

July 29, 1998

Journalists and newspapers throughout the country have revealed a consistent and unmistakeable bias by selective self-censorship of the facts in their reporting on a dispute between the Boy Scouts of America and the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). The newspaper articles, with few exceptions, claim that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is refusing to allow the Universalist Unitarian Association to award its religious award to Scouts solely because the religious award manual expresses disapproval of BSA's policy of excluding homosexuals. Half truths are no less lies for being true, and these stories are peddling a half-truth.

Here are the facts: Lawrence Ray Smith, the Chair of the Religious Relationships Committee (RRC) of BSA, wrote to Ms. Jennifer Harrison, the Director of UUA Youth Programs, a four paragraph letter explaining why BSA has decided to refuse to allow UUA to award its religious emblem, called Religion in Life, to Scouts. The second and largest paragraph of this letter objects to parts of the UUA's Religion in Life manual which sympathizes with those who may be troubled by BSA's duty to God mandate and which characterizes BSA as a "secular organization". The RRC states that BSA is an "ecumenical organization" even though the BSA's Declaration of Religious Principles identifies BSA as "absolutely non-sectarian" with respect to religious training. The two sentence third paragraph expresses "considerable dismay" that the Religion in Life manual expresses disapproval of BSA's policy of excluding homosexuals.

Now if BSA declares itself to be an ecumenical organization, apparently for the first time ever, that is news. Government institutions, particularly public schools, as well as public membership organizations, such as Parent Teacher Associations, continue to charter BSA units even though many of these organizations have official policies prohibiting sponsorship and promotion of discriminatory organizations in accordance with their public obligations to represent and serve all of the community and not just segments thereof. This arrangement is not only unseemly and in possible violation of local institutional rules, it could be unconstitutional. Ecumenical organizations are explicitly religious in nature and as such they are not meant to welcome or accommodate people of all beliefs. Indeed, BSA provides no exception to its duty to God mandate for agnostics, deists, pantheists or atheists or anyone. Yet BSA is well aware that the chartering organizations are the owners and operaters of the BSA units. This means that government institutions are being obligated by BSA to restrict membership to believers in units that the government institutions own and operate even though government institutions are legally bound not to discriminate on the basis of creed in their operations.

The public officials who buy into the BSA programs may not be aware of the inflexibility of BSA's creed based membership requirements and the newspapers are contributing to this state of ignorance by their irresponsible systematic hiding of the relevant facts. Although many people find that the media has a liberal bias, and a bias to sensationalism, here we have an example of what appears to be a blatant bias against upsetting the status quo. The concerns of nonbelievers appear to be too controversial for newspapers to address. For the facts you'll need to rely on the Secular Web. And this story is sure to live on.


Effective Aug. 1 career Exploring was moved to the Learning for Life subsidiary and BSA allows the chartering organization to set the leadership standards for Learning for Life. Thus, both of these programs no longer discriminate as they did at the time this article was written.

Media Coverage of the Dispute

The following is a list of links to media coverage on the dispute. To our knowledge, this list is comprehensive. We are only aware of one cource which even indirectly addresses the issue of God-belief, The Chicago Tribune. That article is no longer on-line.

Related Articles

  • "Letter from the Boy Scouts of America to the Unitarian Universalist Association, concerning the Religion in Life Award" (May 7, 1998) (Off Site)
    Until such time as the UUA materials can be redrafted to a form acceptable to the Committee, youth may not be awarded a Unitarian Universalist religious emblems in Scouting or wear the emblem on a Scout uniform.

  • "Boy Scouts of America seek to Exclude UUs from Full Participation" (June 11, 1998) (Off Site)
    "I believe that your letter has put your committee and the BSA in an untenable and nearly ridiculous position. We will not acquiesce in such discrimination. We will not stop distributing a Religion and Life manual that reflects our religious principles. We will not stop providing Religion and Life awards and Love and Help emblems to Scouts and Scout leaders. If you and the BSA honestly believe that it will promote or defend Scouting to refuse our awards or to have Scout officials tear them off the uniforms of boys, I think that you are sadly mistaken. Most Americans will see such actions for what they are: blatant discrimination against children on the basis of their religion."

  • Nonbeliever Anti-discrimination Project [ Index ] by Matthew Goldstein

  • "Scouts Honor Discrimination" by James Yeaw
    "A court decision holding that the Boy Scouts cannot discriminate would not destroy Scouting. Scout troops will remain what they have always been: friends assembling in small groups where members share values and interests. A church Scout group would still share belief in God as a common bond."

  • "How Your Tax Dollars Support the Boy Scouts of America" (1995) by Larry Taylor
    The Campfire Girls and Boys and the Girl Scouts have recognized the importance of nondiscriminatory policies; so have Boy Scout organizations throughout most of Europe. The BSA, therefore, is one of the last holdouts, an institution still clinging to the doctrine that "no boy can grow into the best kind of citizenship" without a backpack full of religious bigotry, sexism, and homophobia.

  • "Boy Scouts Of America Practices Discrimination" (1994) by Annie Laurie Gaylor
    "BSA has argued it is a private group with the right to discriminate--cruelly--against little boys. But does it have that right?

  • "Not Practicing What You Preach" (1993) by Todd Pence
    "The policy of the Boy Scouts of America concerning persons who do not believe in God is inconsistent with its own principles."

  • "What to Do With the Girls" (Off Site)
    Most Americans are not aware that Scouting originally included girls and that most scouting organizations around the world includes girls.

  • "Scouting For All" (Off Site)
    Scouting for All is a group of youth and adults from various walks of life who are committed to getting the Boy Scouts of America's discriminatory policy of excluding gay youth and adults from participating in the scouting program change

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