Boy Scouts of America Denies Unitarian Universalist Association Its Religious Merit Badge
June 11, 1998
Lawrence Ray Smith, Ph.D.
Chair, Religious Relationship Committee
Boy Scouts of America
522 East Lane
Kerrville, TX 78028
Dear Dr. Smith:
Our Youth Office received your letter of May 7 stating that Scouting youth may no longer be awarded the Unitarian
Universalist Religion in Life award for Boy Scouts nor the Love and Help award for Cub Scouts. You do this because
our manual for the Religion and Life award includes statements designed to help Unitarian Universalist youth deal
with the tension that they may feel between Unitarian Universalist religious principles and certain aspects of
BSA current policy, particularly with regard to
discrimination against gay Scouts and leaders and with regard to those whose conscientious ethical and spiritual
principles may not include a belief in God.
Surely the Religious Relationships Committee of the Boy Scouts of America cannot intend to tell a religious group
what we may teach with regard to our own religious principles. We teach our youth, as a matter of religious principle,
that discrimination against people simply by virtue of their belonging to a particular category of human being
is wrong. We cannot be expected to ignore the question of discrimination against gay scouts and leaders in our
guidance to boys studying our religious principles and
history. Unitarian Universalism also has a special openness, ministry and mission to those who may have trouble
with traditional ideas about God.
This too is a matter of religious principle with us. We know that we are not alone in regarding doubt, as well
as piety, as a part of faith.
Moreover, if a good Buddhist Boy Scout said, "No, I do not believe in a God," would you exclude that
child for following the teachings of his own faith? You attempt to define the Boy Scouts of America as an 'ecumenical'
organization, and object to our reference to it as 'secular.' I believe that you misunderstand both words. 'Ecumenical'
is a distinctively Christian term properly used only with regard to inter-Christian cooperation. It is not appropriate
to an organization that aspires to inter-faith relationships. Rabbis and imams would not find it appropriate at
all. Moreover, because the BSA is grounded in moral and civic values, but not in a particular religion per se,
the term 'secular' is quite appropriate. Many BSA leaders, including members of the National Council, would repudiate
the implication of your statement that the BSA is an entirely Christian organization. Or do you really wish to
exclude Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and members of other minority faith communities? Your committee is charged with
a great responsibility: to help the BSA relate to the increasing religious pluralism of American society. Judging
by your letter, you are in danger of failing in that task. You risk exposing the BSA to charges of discrimination
-- not only against a sexual minority, but against entire religious groups, starting with Unitarian Universalism,
a movement which has deep spiritual roots in America's commitment to religious freedom, to democratic values, and
to minority rights.
Some of our congregations date back to the time of the Pilgrims; others are associated with the American Revolution,
the abolitionist movement, the struggle for women's rights, for civil rights, etc. Our members have long cooperated
with the BSA. Our churches sponsor troops, our members serve as adult leaders (some on the National Council), and
our youth regularly win awards. Hundreds have received the Religion in Life award in recent years. I myself became
a Life Scout, and attended a World Jamboree.
As a pastor in New York City in 1990, I helped to organize a troop for boys then living in the city's welfare
hotels. Because of our long-standing concern for religious pluralism, we could be helpful to your committee. It
saddens me when I see mistakes like your letter that threaten to deny Scouting and support of Scouting to boys
who could benefit from it.
I have consulted Tom Deimler, the staff member of the BSA who works with your committee, and have agreed with him
to take part in a meeting about all these issues in September or October. In the meantime, I must tell you that
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:
against children on the basis of their religion.
John A. Buehrens
Unitarian Universalist Association