Wednesday Boy Scouts of America decided to hold off until May a decision on whether to allow gay scouts or scout masters. The May vote, to take place in Grapevine, Texas among 1,400 national council members, will decide a potential religious and ethical turn for the federally funded youth organization. For decades the Boy Scouts have been encumbered by debates about the meaning of their public support in relationship to values that critics see as springing exclusively from the domain of religion.
Six years ago this reporter interviewed the unsuccessful plaintiff in a suit regarding the religiosity of the Scouts’ oath, which calls on members to be “morally straight” as well as theistic, in relationship to the organization’s federal funding. Scout leadership has decided that that oath prohibits homosexuality among the ranks. The report was filed in relationship to a Virginia beat.
At least someone among the federal authorities funding the Boy Scouts long ago began to imagine that they could pin God down like a frog under academic dissection – any confounding or appealing mystery to the whole matter officially sliced into ribbons by the magistrate. Though it has left the womb of the state, religion has hung onto the establishment by a seemingly indestructible umbilical cord.
The cord’s transfusion flows strongest at times like the beginnings of legislative or city council meetings, wherein a preacher or other religious authority is called in by custom to ceremonially unite representatives through their faith in a mortality-transcending god or gods.
In 2007 Rajan Zed, a Hindu cleric from the Reno-based Indian Association of Northern Nevada, appeared as Senate guest Chaplain, to jeering:
That same year, 2007, Attorney General Bob McDonnell — now the governor of the purple Commonwealth of Virginia — sent an advisory brief to an Illinois Federal District Court, his public relations efforts chalking up his intended influence as defending “traditional understanding of religious freedom” and halting “the possible loss of the direct and substantial impacts [a military base Boy Scout event] has on the Commonwealth.” Mr. McDonnell’s intended consequence was to defend the the Defense Department’s monetary and logistical support for the National Boy Scout Jamboree at Fort A.P. Hill, near Bowling Green, Virginia. By email, he expressed his pleasure to the press that a Chicago decision indicting the Defense Department had been overturned.
Then Governor Tim Kaine, now a senator, voiced his understanding that the case was a federal, as opposed to a commonwealth, funding matter. “It’s not one that I have really focused on at all,” he said. Though, he alluded to having supported the Boy Scouts in one way or another while Richmond mayor.
Mr. McDonnell’s press secretary, Justin Tucker Martin, explained the governor’s advisory brief to me as this: “The Boy Scouts of America are a theistic organization, not a religious one.” Mr. Martin advised me that the Boy Scout Jamboree’s standing congressional support did not constitute a violation of the establishment clause, which prohibits the government from prohibiting the free exercise of religion.
Soon after the federal trial had wound down in early April, I conversed with Eugene Winkler, the primary plaintiff on the suit against the defense secretary. Winkler was at the time the head of Gary United Methodist Church in Wheaton, Illinois. We spoke on the phone for a few minutes.
Tyler Bass: What was your personal stake in preventing the federal funding from going to the Jamboree?
Eugene Winkler: The Boy Scouts discriminate. I am not only a religious man, a pastor. I was an Eagle Scout, and have served on regional Boy Scout councils. So all of those are in my favor in terms of the Boy Scouts, OK? I am not antagonistic toward the Boy Scouts, but the Boy Scouts have a very limited understanding of what it means to believe in God. On their authority, if you don’t believe in their concept of God, you can’t be a Scout. Their concept of god is — it is my concept of god, certainly — a Judeo-Christian concept of God, but if you don’t accept that concept of God, you can’t get into the Scouts. And they’re a discriminatory organization and federal funding is being spent on the Jamboree to further that kind of discrimination. That’s why the suit was filed.
TB: Why exactly did they decide that you didn’t have standing? Because it’s not like they weren’t acknowledging many of the facts that you’re presenting to me right now; for example, that they recognize a monotheistic, Judeo-Christian, Islamic-even concept of God. Why is it that they rule that you don’t have standing to make this suit as a taxpayer?
EW: Two words: beats me. If you read there right on the first page, second page of the brief, they admit that they are ignoring the other issues, and that they are just simply saying that I don’t have standing, which is a chicken way out of it.
TB: They said –
EW: Let me just say one other thing. These are three old Republican guys.
TB: The judges?
EW: These judges. They just didn’t want to deal with the issue.
TB: When you were a Boy Scout, did you ever question this when you were younger? Did you have atheist colleagues or associates or people who were polytheistic? Did you raise the question in your own youth?
EW: No, of course not. I wasn’t aware of those kinds of issues when I was in the Boy Scouts. I mean, I was 12 years old!
TB: Do you know of Boy Scouts who are atheist or polytheistic who are just like you – you’re a monotheist? When did it first start to occur to you that it was perhaps discriminatory to have this sort of oath?
EW: Well, I guess when I became an adult and was a scout master and was working in regional Scout councils, it became apparent to me that there was a very limited understanding in the Scouts of what it means to be — what the Scout motto means for them.
TB: Do you guys plan to appeal the decision?
EW: I’m not sure yet because our ACLU lawyer is traveling and we won’t be talking this week. You know, I’m confident, from my point of view, that I want to appeal certainly. Because I think it’s a vital issue that has to be faced.
TB: Would you still raise the issue even if the feds or the Congress weren’t funding the Boy Scouts, and the Boy Scouts were simply discriminatory?
EW: Oh, we’ve already raised it in a number of other venues, with the Chicago Board of Education. We’ve already won other suits on this same matter.
TB: I noticed. I mean, if the Boy Scouts were a private organization, and you clearly have –
EW: They are a private organization!
TB: But they receive funding from the Congress, do they not?
EW: Well, that’s why they shouldn’t receive funding from the Congress, and, certainly, they shouldn’t receive that kind of blessing because it’s an issue of church and state really.
TB: So you would rather see the Boy Scouts as a separate organization that still kept their [religious] motto?
EW: Oh, sure!
TB: I was trying to see if you were opposed to the motto itself.
EW: Oh, no, no, no. Not at all. They can do whatever they want with the motto, or they can discriminate against whomever they want as long as they don’t get federal funding for it.