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Activist Groups Urge Obama to Reject Boy Scout Honor

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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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 Uncle Sam and Scouting for All How the Church Hijacked Scouting

By Shaun M. Joynson

Brownsea Island doesn't feature in many history books as the site of a revolution. But it is one, because that rough patch of mosquito-ridden land off the Dorset coast was where a daring social experiment was conducted by a man, whose status as a revolutionary can best be judged by consulting the list of the best selling books of all time.

Atop the list is The Bible, closely followed by The Koran. In third place is Chairman Mao's Little Red Book; while in fourth place is Scouting for Boys by Robert Baden-Powell.

Baden-Powell's daring social experiment consisted of a camp in the summer of 1907 in which he took 20 boys from various backgrounds and split them into groups to work on a series of team-building activities he had designed.

The boys came from all walks of life. Some were from top schools, while others were from London's poor. Their diverse backgrounds made no difference and the amazing success of this first Scout Camp prompted Baden-Powell to write Scouting for Boys, which was published as a fortnightly part work in the spring of 1908.

Now people say Baden-Powell founded Scouting, but he didn't. Scouting for Boys was only ever intended to be a guide to activities that could be run by leaders of other youth organisations around at the time, including the Christian Boys Brigade.

But what happened was that CHILDREN started buying Scouting for Boys in vast quantities, and were so excited by it that they set up their own Scout patrols to run the new activities.

One such child was 14-year-old Harold Price of Chiswick in West London, who formed the 1st Chiswick Scout Patrol with a group of friends. Before too long, other children demanded to join his new gang, prompting Harold to seek help.

Harold approached Tom Foley, the organist at his church and a noted outdoorsman, who agreed to become their leader. The next step was to find a meeting place, so Harold and Tom approached their church, but hit upon an immediate snag.

The church was happy to provide a hall, but only if they could recruit the Scouts as potential believers.

However, Harold's circle of friends included Jews, Catholics, Baptists, and some downright heathens.

So the offer from the church was turned down in favour of a room in the basement of a local shop where the 1st Chiswick Scout Troop began meeting in September 1908.

Harold declared that the Troop must always be open to boys "and 90 years later, girls "regardless of whether they had a faith or not.

That principle was ingrained into every member of the 1st Chiswick from then onwards, including into myself, when I became their leader in 1994.

Sadly, the 1st Chiswick ceased functioning in 2003, and became integrated into a neighbouring group that was started in 1909 by Hubert Martin, a man who later helped spread Scouting around the world.

And spread it did. Today, there are 28 million Scouts in the world. Only 6 countries don't have Scouting and around half a billion people have been Scouts since 1907. In Britain, it is estimated that around 70% of the adult male population have been Scouts at some stage in their youth. And in terms of size, the World Scout Jamborees held every 4 years, dwarf the Olympics.

The reasons for Scouting's success are simple. Firstly, it offers activities that will always appeal to children. Two weeks ago, I took seventeen 6–8 year olds on a day trip to their first Scout camp.

Despite atrocious weather, they eagerly threw themselves into such timeless Scouting activities as hiking, climbing and burning sausages to a crisp over a smoky wood fire.

Scouting also works because it tries to be open to all. As Baden-Powell "a man who rarely went to church "said in 1924, 'we hold no brief for one set of beliefs over another".

Sadly, one country where this message has not been heard is in America.

According to fable, Scouting came to America because in 1909 an unknown Scout helped an American tourist William D. Boyce through a thick London fog. Boyce offered the boy some money for his assistance, but the boy refused it, saying that as a Scout he could not accept payment for being helpful. Boyce was so impressed that he got the Scout to introduce him to Baden-Powell and as a result, Boyce returned home to start the Boy Scouts of America, now known as the BSA.

As in other countries "including Britain "the churches in America quickly saw an opportunity to use Scouting for their own ends. But here and in the rest of the world (including the Vatican, where the Pope was once famously told to 'butt out' of Scouting by Baden-Powell) these moves were resisted. However, in America, their grip tightened as time went on.

Today there are 4½ million Scouts in America but in many areas, it is virtually impossible to become a Scout without being a member of a church. This is because the Protestant Church operates most of the American Scout Groups. There are also 9,600 Catholic Groups and 4,300 Lutheran groups.

According to the BSA's website, there is also one Buddhist troop, but Jews and Muslims don't appear to be actually able to become Scouts. Instead, they can take part in a series of 'supporting activities based on Scouting'.

As regards independent or open Scout groups, they hardly existed at all, until the religious right started to crack the conservative whip in the late 1970's.

Though there was no actual rule allowing them to do so, the BSA sacked a volunteer Scout Leader called Tim Curran because he admitted to being gay. He took them to court and in 1992, he finally lost his case.

Curran's story was read by Californian Scout Leader Dave Rice, a true scouting grandee if ever there was one.

Rice's view —as a heterosexual and an elder of the Presbyterian Church "was that sexual orientation was a private matter and irrelevant to being in Scouting and surprisingly, the boys in his troop supported his view.

However, the BSA, which urges its members to be 'morally upright' disagreed, and dismissed Rice from Scouting after 59 years.

As a result, Rice set up Scouting for All, an organisation campaigning to end the ban on gays. But nothing much happened to the organisation until one of Rice's former Scouts came to do his Citizenship Badge.

The main requirement for this badge is that the Scout must pick an issue and then write a letter about it to a politician.

After discussing the matter with his father, Steven Cozza of California chose the BSA's ban on gays as the issue.

He made little progress with the politicians. But then he wrote to American Scouting Magazine and was amazed to receive several hundred messages of support following his letter's publication.

As a result, he launched a petition, which garnered 35,000 signatories from 50 states and 18 different countries. Then the media interest came.

This was hardly surprising, after all Cozza presented a powerful image. He was 13 years old, straight and an Eagle Scout. Now in the US, Eagle Scouts are regarded with awe.

Former Eagle Scouts include presidents, astronauts and captains of industries and it is considered to be highest award a boy can get in America.

So the fact that an Eagle Scout was challenging his own organisation proved to be hugely embarrassing to the BSA as his young face regularly appeared on TV screens and magazine covers across the States as he spoke on news programmes and at demonstrations around the country.

Despite putting up with homophobic abuse after being interviewed for gay magazines, Cozza continued with his campaign. Scouting For All soon became a nationally known organisation, with its own offices, website and charitable funding.

A couple of years later Scouting For All extended its remit to include atheists and girls, two other groups who were specifically forbidden to join the BSA. But the BSA kept saying nothing other than they were a private organisation that could set its own conditions of membership.

In June 2000, the US Supreme Court agreed with them. Another leader, James Dale, who had also sued after being sacked for being gay, lost his case when the judges ruled that the BSA had a constitutional right as a private organisation to exclude homosexuals because it "would derogate from the organisation's expressive message."

The BSA was delighted. But their delight was to be short lived.

Cozza and Scouting For All seized upon the ruling. They contacted thousands of local authorities and other sponsors of Scouting urging them to withdraw funding on the grounds that the BSA were not a public organisation open to all. The end result for the BSA was catastrophic.

Scores of state schools across American have stopped sponsoring, funding, and giving special treatment to BSA. Prior to the ruling, state schools used to allow Scout Troops to use their facilities either for free or at a greatly reduced rate, but not any longer.

Funding or special privileges have also been withdrawn by hundreds of local authorities across America as well as by many local and national governmental organisations associated with the police, the fire service, hospitals and branches of the armed services.

They have also lost countless millions from sponsorship deals and employee giving schemes as Scouting for All pointed out to huge corporations like J.P. Morgan and Merrill Lynch that the BSA discriminated in a way that directly contravened their own equal opportunities policies.

More importantly, as a result of Scouting For All's action, the BSA has suffered cuts in their funding from at least 15 chapters of the United Way, which is a central collection organisation for charitable donations, that distributes funds to community groups in much the same way as the Lottery does over here.

Even many religious groups have withdrawn their funding as a result of the Supreme Court decision claiming that the BSA's policies are incompatible with Scouting's ideals.

They have also faced very public criticism from notable Americans such as Michael Bloomberg, Steven Spielberg and former President Clinton.

But the biggest backlash has come from within American Scouting itself.

Leaders of BSA councils across America proposed that the BSA allows individual groups to decide for themselves whether to have gay members and leaders. And many local Scout Groups and Scout Councils have also withdrawn from the BSA because they cannot continue to claim public money whilst having discriminatory policies.

Today American Scouting is split asunder with the religious backed conservatives desperately fighting for survival as Scouting for All, no longer led by Steven Cozza as he is now an adult, slowly but surely breaks down the barriers.

A measure of how desperate the BSA has become can be seen in the 2005 Support our Scouts Act that is currently being steered through Congress.

As the BSA says "The act will help guarantee respect for the constitutional rights of the Boy Scouts and other youth and community organizations in their dealings with government".

In other words, they are trying to ingratiate Scouting into the US establishment even though it actively practises discrimination against gays, girls and atheists.

Coming as I do from one of the world's first Scout Groups I frankly find this proposal staggering if not frightening, because the last person who tried to ingratiate Scouting into the establishment was Mussolini, and when his attempt failed, he simply replaced Scouting with his own movement.

Scouting is not part of any establishment. It is not an arm of any agency, a branch of the education or social services or the tool of any government or religious group. It is a self-reliant independent non-political, interdenominational organisation run mostly by volunteers that provides enjoyable activities to children "and adults "that coincidentally, happen to benefit them.

For all people say "both good and bad " about Scouting, it remains what Baden-Powell always said it should be, namely a game for children that adults could also play.

Forcing them to play it by making it part of a state will destroy it, as will having rules forbidding certain people from playing it for no other reason than they happen to be non-religious, of the wrong sex or the wrong sexuality.

Unlike American Scouting bosses, the rest of the world learned this lesson years ago. But thanks to Steven Cozza and Scouting for All, the revolution is coming to America; and when it does, Scouting over there will be much better for being able to be played by EVERY child, because as the writings of Baden-Powell have consistently shown, this is exactly what he would have wanted.

Shaun M. Joynson is a member of the NSS.




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