By Herb Silverman
I was pleased when I heard last year that the President of the Boy Scouts of America, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, called for an end to the ban on gay leaders. But my brief satisfaction turned to disappointment when I learned his reason: Otherwise courts might force the BSA to radically modify its positions. Gates also wanted the BSA to give church sponsors of scout troops the option to reject gay leaders.
Gates further said he worried that a court order might overturn the BSA policy of banning atheist scouts and troop leaders. He wanted the BSA to maintain its right to promote religious bigotry, while he was willing to, sort of, give in on the anti-gay policy.
The change happened just as Gates proposed. Atheists and agnostics still need not apply. Gates cited membership decline as another reason to change the policy regarding gay boys and adults. Perhaps he did not realize that religiously unaffiliated young people are rapidly increasing across all demographic lines—another reason to welcome atheists and agnostics.
On May 26, Gates ended his BSA term and was replaced by AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, who has not said if he will propose any policy changes.
Not all churches had supported BSA policies. The national Unitarian Universalist Association took a principled stand and disaffiliated from the BSA in 1998 because of its discrimination against gays and atheists. Unfortunately, the UUA recently decided to affiliate again because the BSA ended its ban on gay leaders, even though it continues to ban atheists. This decision is particularly perplexing because the tolerant Unitarian Church counts many atheists and agnostics among its members throughout the country.
My wife and I are atheists and token members of our local Unitarian Church in Charleston, South Carolina. We have long supported and appreciated this church because of its commitment to social justice in our conservative community, and its welcoming inclusion of atheists and humanists. When we learned the dismaying news that the national UUA has re-affiliated with the Boy Scouts, we told our local minister that we wouldn’t be making our annual financial contribution while the situation continues. We don’t blame our local church, but we hope that its minister will vocally support the many atheists and humanists in his congregation and oppose the UUA decision.
Probably the group most upset with the UUA/BSA affiliation is the nontheistic UU Humanists, which is also a member of the Secular Coalition for America. I’m on the board of directors of the American Humanist Association, which held its annual conference in Chicago from May 26-29. The UU Humanists attending the conference arranged for a Sunday breakfast and lively discussion there with UUA President Peter Morales and some AHA members. I admire Rev. Morales for agreeing to talk with a group he knew would disagree strongly with the recent Boy Scouts decision.
Morales told participants that the UUA cherishes and respects the humanists, agnostics, and atheists among its members, and that he feels the best way to change BSA policy is from the inside rather than from the outside.
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