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Activist Groups Urge Obama to Reject Boy Scout Honor

From Fox News:

Activist groups, including Scouting for All, urge President Obama not to accept the honorary Presidency of the Boy Scouts of America until they stop discriminating.

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Rev. Joan Armstrong, First Unitarian Society, Madison, WI: Poignant Summation of the Struggles of her Church Face to Face with the Bigotry of the BSA

Capital Times, December 8, 2000 Madison, WI

Youth are receiving message of rejection Boy Scouts: Is there still honor? By Joan Armstrong

It was about this time last year I made my first visit to the UW Arboretum. I was particularly fascinated by the memorial "fire ring,'' which I learned was used for gatherings of both local Wiccans and Boy Scouts. I remember musing, "Only in Madison.'' Indeed, only in Madison.

This past June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts of America can exclude gays from leadership of (and membership in) Scout troops as it is "a private religious organization.''

Since Scouting is so intertwined with churches -- religious organizations sponsored 55 percent of Scouts and 61 percent of units in 1998 -- the pressure on liberal and moderate denominations, like the Unitarian Universalist Association and United Church of Christ, has raised an irreconcilable difference in the values of the Boy Scouts of America and local congregations that sponsor Boy Scout troops.

For those UU congregations that support Boy Scout troops, about 30 across the country, the decision to continue that relationship is wrenching -- sometimes rising to a level of conflict not seen in our churches since the Vietnam War years.

And it is much more than a "building use'' issue. The Unitarian Society of Fairhaven, Mass., for example, which has supported a troop for 60 years, may very well vote to decline continued support at a specially called congregational meeting in January.

Like First Unitarian Society in Madison, the church in Fairhaven is a Welcoming Congregation, which means it has participated in a diversity audit and specifically pledged to be welcoming of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.

While the troop leader in Fairhaven, who grew up a UU and was a Boy Scout in the troop he now leads, would never be likely to discriminate against anyone, ". . . he doesn't really have the backing of the Boy Scouts,'' according to Debbie Mitchell, president of the congregation, and that really puts the congregation in a bind.

The struggle with the Boy Scouts raises many of the same questions as the struggle for gay rights has within mainstream Protestant denominations. Here are some of the issues raised:

  • Does anti-gay discrimination outweigh the overall good of an institution that means so much to so many -- including gay people?
  • Which is more important: an autocratic but distant national body, or the good work of a local organization that tacitly ignores the offending national policy (as many Scout troops do)?
  • Does principle require breaking with a discriminatory organization, or is it equally principled to fight for change from within?
  • Then there's the tactical question: Which is more effective, pressure from within or pressure from outside?
  • And what about our support of United Way, which continues to support the Boy Scouts of America? All of these are important issues, but what concerns me most is the message we convey to our youth.

Teen suicide, which has dropped in numbers the past year, is still unacceptably high. Many of those young victims are youth who have wrestled with issues of sexual identity.

I raised my own children in a suburb of Atlanta that had the highest rate of teen suicide in the United States. That community subsequently passed a "Resolution Against the Gay Lifestyle'' in 1992. Those of us with close ties to youth in the community could not ignore the connection.

Here at First Unitarian Society, we have several families who have inquired about the "Love and Help'' emblem for Cub Scouts. The materials and the emblem award have been ordered. A presentation will be made for those youth when they have earned the award.

No requests, however, have been made for the "Religion and Life'' award for 12- to 17-year-old Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, nor have we heard from any Eagle Scouts who are required to take an oath that is particularly at variance with our values.

The Rev. Joan Armstrong joined Madison's First Unitarian Society staff in September 1999 as an associate parish minister with responsibility for religious education for children. She contributed these thoughts in the congregation's most recent newsletter.




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