How About a New Merit Badge for Integrity?
by Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine

Transparent Spacer
Quote Graphic Rule

 I have spoken out publicly and privately against intolerance and discrimination based on ethnic, religious, racial, and sexual orientation.

While I support the principles of Scouting, that does not imply that I support every current policy.

Although I have no direct active role in the Boy Scouts, I encourage efforts to end intolerance and discrimination once and for all.

-- Steven Spielberg,          
in response to an inquiry          
by Margaret Downey[1]          

Quote Graphic Rule Inside

It is always to be taken for granted, that those who oppose an equality of rights never mean the exclusion should take place on themselves.

-- Thomas Paine          


Quote Graphic Rule
Transparent Spacer

In April, 1998, I jokingly proposed a new Boy Scout Merit Badge, the "Have-Your-Cake-and-Eat-It-Too Badge."[2] This is the badge that I award to the entire Boy Scouts of America for wanting all the advantages of being a religious organization without suffering the responsibilities that go along with those advantages. BSA wants the ability to discriminate, which right is granted to a private organization, but then wants public funding as well as access to the public schools for recruiting purposes. We, the public, cannot allow ourselves to support or accommodate organizations that discriminate.

This desire to have it both ways may inadvertently be among the "values" that the BSA instills on its young members, I thought. I had forgotten the words of George Eliot: "Fatally powerful as religious systems have been, human nature is stronger and wider, and though dogmas may hamper they cannot absolutely repress its growth."[3] In light of this (not only because I think Eliot was right, but also being inspired by BSA Advisory Council Member Steven Spielberg), I would like to modify my earlier suggestion, with the hope of promoting the value of integrity (self-consistency).

First, I am not suggesting that we let the BSA off the hook. This is clearly a religious organization that discriminates; either situation bars them from access to public funds and from access to the schoolroom (and from any semblance of dignity). One writer to Positive Atheism sent his Eagle Badge back to the national office.[4] Actions like this must continue, as must pressure upon schools and other government agencies which support BSA. We also need to continue the public debate over the nature of the problem that is the present-day Boy Scouts of America.

The Arguments Against the BSA

True, only four pages out of the 231-page Cub Scout manual mention religion. It is conceivable that a lad can go through the entire Scouting program without once encountering religion (or even thinking about it, for that matter). This is not the point. Judge Ceniceros, of Portland, Oregon, cannot truthfully say that "the religious aspect of Scouting is a very small part of its programs."[5]

The Boy Scouts' religious test, no matter how scantily enforced, nullifies this claim of Judge Ceniceros. Were it not for the fact that atheist kids (technically) cannot join the boy scouts, it would be safe to say that religion is a very minor aspect of scouting and, indeed, a very private affair. To add insult to injury, the BSA's "Declaration of Religious Principles" states that "No member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God."

Thus, the BSA's backhanded denunciation of atheism, along with its religious test, make the "religious aspect of Scouting" a core part of its program. We must treat the institution of the Boy Scouts of America in light of these two things.

Is the BSA a Private Organization?

If the Boy Scouts is a private organization, it is allowed to discriminate all it wants. It receives no help from the government -- including the schools -- and the government has no say as to how it runs its program. "The Boy Scouts can be as narrow-minded and bigoted as they choose to be; I don't have a right to tell them how to lead their private organization."[6]

Crucial to this discussion, though, is the BSA's insistence that they have access to public funding, and access to the schools for recruiting purposes. They want to have their cake and eat it too. They want the right to discriminate, yet they want us to support them.

It doesn't work that way. If we support them, they need to abide by certain guidelines that befit a public institution, one being no discrimination. If they want to be able to discriminate, then we cannot -- and ought not -- support them one iota.

The BSA and Public Access

I don't think the "public access" argument has much of a chance against the BSA. Typically, the public access argument has been invoked against men-only clubs, urging them to admit women. In most of the cases I researched, the clubs eventually voted to allow women. In one case in Portland, Oregon, I think the court intervened and ordered the club to admit women (I only vaguely remember the case, but could not find the story or any veteran reporters who remembers the case).

The public access argument usually asserts that since membership in the club is key to career advancement in certain professions, the clubs are no longer strictly private. Some cases also invoked the fact that major political debates are held in these clubs. (Presidential candidate George McGovern refused to debate President Nixon at the City Club of Portland in 1972 because of its men-only policy.) However, I don't think membership in the Boy Scouts is key to any career moves, unless a case can be made that it helps a boy prepare for a career in the military.

Using the public access argument, professional golfer Casey Martin sued the Nike Tour to allow him to use a golf cart under the Americans with Disabilities Act.[7] Tour lawyer William J. Maledon of Phoenix invoked rulings on cases involving the Boy Scouts of America, a Chicago business club and a factory offering tours to public and private schools as precedents against Martin's case. Nevertheless, U.S. Magistrate Thomas M. Coffin ruled in January that the PGA Tour, which conducts the Nike Tour, is not a private club any more than an auto association or a credit union. Therefore, he said, that makes the tour subject to the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The Badge of Integrity: Changing BSA from Within

While supporting all efforts to divorce the BSA from government, I do hope for change from within. The executive board of the National Council of Boy Scouts of America is considering a resolution to "establish a representative commission to examine the relevance and appropriateness of the present membership requirements for traditional BSA programs and report its findings to the executive board in the year 2000." The resolution (reportedly) goes on to say that "according to present interpretations, a homosexual person cannot be 'morally straight.' Many others in the Scouting movement have interpreted these terms to refer to proper behavior rather than a definition of a person's sexual orientation."

What a concept! That's what I thought it meant when I was a Cub Scout.

When a 16-year-old Eagle Scout was fired from Yawgoog Scout Reservation, the largest in the nation, for admitting he was gay, a sit-in in support of the scout by adult and youth staff members shut the camp down the next morning.[8] The times they are a changin', and I think this may include the Boy Scouts of America.

Steven Spielberg (quoted above) is renowned among Scouts for establishing the Scouting cinematography merit badge in 1989. I wonder what it would be like if an individual or organization were to establish an Integrity merit badge -- a badge that specifically works toward the Boy Scouts doing their own recruiting and paying their own way -- a badge that, in essence, promotes the fact that you cannot have your cake and eat it too. Any scout who works toward building or operating a program that, say, recruits new scouts without entangling the program with the public schools, would be working toward earning this special merit badge.

I think even many theists might agree that integrity -- that is, self-consistency -- is a value vastly more important than faith.

Graphic Rule


1. Steven Spielberg on Scouting.

2. April, 1998, "The 'Have Your Cake & Eat It, Too' Badge" by Cliff Walker.

3. -- from "What Great Men Think About Religion" by Ira D. Cardiff.

4. Letter from Andy Prescott.

5. Ceniceros (Decision).

6. Nancy Powell, on The Tom Leykis Show, appearance on March 31, 1998.

7. Judge finds PGA Tour must play by ADA rules, in the Portland Oregonian, January 27, 1997.

8. "Did Yawgoog dismiss scout for being gay?" by Jennifer Levijz, Providence (Rhode Island) Journal, August 7, 1999.

Graphic Rule