Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

A Boy Scout Will be Brave, Reverent...and Tolerant?

James Skillen


March 30, 1998

Last week the California Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts may require boys and leaders to believe in God and to reject homosexuality. The Scouts are not a business that must serve everyone, the court held, but rather a private association that can legitimately decide who may belong. The Scouts' "core function" is to provide moral instruction to boys, so it must be free to define its essential beliefs and who may impart them.

Although the decision is final for California, it hardly settles the controversy about whether organizations may uphold distinctive standards of membership, conduct, and belief. A state appeals court earlier this month, for instance, ruled that the Boy Scouts in New Jersey may not bar a gay leader.

Some critics reject the Court's finding that the Scouts are a private group, for it has a half-million members just in California, produces a Learning for Life program used in some public schools, and invites all boys to join. An ACLU attorney admitted that the Scouts could bar atheists if it was a religious group, but claimed that it would then be unconstitutional for the Scouts to use federal lands for camping or to be sponsored by the police or cities.

But most critics just don't like the standards the Scouts uphold and they want government to make them stop it. "The Boy Scouts are lost in a wilderness of bigotry," the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorialized, and if its members don't set it right, it's up to the courts to show them the way back to America." An attorney at a gay-rights law group said, "'A Scout is prejudiced' should not be a 13th point of the Boy Scout law." A Los Angeles Times columnist fumed that California Scouts would now have to follow these commandments: "You Will Like Who We Tell You to Like," and "You Will Worship Who we Tell You to Worship."  He insisted that the court instead should have accepted his own view that a good Boy Scout need only be 1) A good kid. 2) Willing to meet all kinds of kids. 3) Not taught to condemn other kinds of kids.

But, of course, no one has to be a Boy Scout. It is not a requirement of citizenship or of graduation from school. Nor is there any rule granting the Scouts a monopoly on boys clubs. Quite the contrary. People dissatisfied with Scout rules and ideals have organized many alternatives. Think of AWANA clubs or the Christian Service Brigade in evangelical churches. Some inner city churches have their own highly structured boys' clubs to fight the lure of gangs and the street.

The critics may believe that a Scout can be "Reverent" even if he questions God, and that being gay isn't an automatic violation of the Scout oath to be "morally straight." But their judgment is beside the point. The political and legal issue isn't whether the Scouts are right but whether they have the right to maintain their standards. One of the California justices made the point nicely with the rhetorical question: "Could the NAACP be compelled to accept as a member a Ku Klux Klansman? Could B'nai B'rith be required to admit an anti-Semite?"

Nor does the Scouts' use of public spaces, or the recognition given them by public authorities, somehow obligate them to become all things to all people. Every group and individual in the public square has a particular view on life. The only requirement is that they not force everyone else out of the public square.

The Scouts case isn't about tolerance at all. Or rather, it's about a different kind of tolerance than the critics imagine. Tolerance, after all, means putting up with views you reject. Using government to force groups to adopt your favored values doesn't measure up. Apparently it is not the Boy Scouts who need to learn tolerance!

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, Director of Social Policy Studies
   Center for Public Justice

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