A Miscarriage of Justice
by Margaret Downey
GREATER PHILADELPHIA STORY-May 1999
Seven years ago I filed a discrimination complaint against the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) with the Pennsylvania
Human Relations Commission (PHRC). After a thorough investigation, the PHRC's legal department issued a 'Probable
Cause' finding saying that in its opinion BSA are a public accommodation and as such violated the Pennsylvania
Public Accommodations laws in rejecting my son and me because of our nontheist lifestance.
The PHRC requested that the BSA abide by the 'Probable Cause' finding but the BSA refused. The BSA pressed
for the matter to be reviewed by the Commissioners assigned by the governor of Pennsylvania.
BSA contended that they were not a 'public accommodation,' but rather a 'private organization' shielded by
freedom of association. In other words, for the last seven years, BSA has fought for the right to discriminate
To support its contention that they are a private organization, BSA paraded religious troop leaders who
said they could not tolerate a non-religious child in their midst, a sociologist who opined ' citing no scientific
evidence ' on the untoward effects nontheist participation would supposedly have on BSA, and various people who
said they believe BSA to be based on religion.
My evidence proving that BSA is in fact open-to-the-public consisted of recruitment flyers distributed
in public schools, newspaper advertisements announcing 'open houses' and that 'all boys' are invited, and handbills
that had been posted in public places such as public libraries, supermarkets bulletin boards, etc..
During the PHRC hearing, attorney James Grafton Randall and I also pointed out that BSA receive public
money from the United Way's unallocated fund, and that they hold a Congressional Charter.
The Charter specifically says that the BSA is an educational organization teaching Scoutcraft. The Charter
says absolutely nothing about religion being an integral part of the BSA. Most importantly, the Charter allows
the BSA to receive government gratuities and protects the BSA from competition as a national youth organization.
Not one piece of BSA literature describes them as a private/religious organization. Under Randall's cross
examination, BSA witnesses read from the Scout Mastership Fundamentals booklet. It states, 'religious instruction
is the responsibility of home and church.'
Commissioner Raquel Otero de Yiengst who heard the case presented at the Chester County Courthouse in May
1999, agreed with the PHRC's legal position, and recommended that the other eight Commissioners rule that BSA is
a public accommodation. On June 28, 1999 seven Commissioners did the opposite. They voted that the BSA is a private
organization and therefore not subject to the anti-discrimination laws of Pennsylvania. With only one other Commissioner
(Theotis Braddy) voting that BSA were an open-to-the-public organization, the PHRC held BSA to be privat I
was deeply saddened by this miscarriage of justice. I was sad for the nontheist community and I was sad for the
I wanted to prove the obvious, namely that BSA is an open-to-the-public program. I wanted to establish
once and for all that BSA should serve all boys regardless of their religious beliefs.
The complaint I filed was my attempt to force BSA to abide by its own Congressional Charter and to step
into the 21st Century with pride and dignity. There is no pride or dignity associated with selective bigoted membership.
The right to discriminate is shameful. The PHRC dismissal means that intolerance will continue to flourish
at the hands of the world's largest youth group.
BSA now joins the ranks of disgraceful private clubs that promote bigotry and prejudice. Ethical members
of the BSA should be appalled to know that an organization established to teach Scoutcraft is now promoting separatism
Now that the BSA hierarchy has proven that BSA is private and may exclude on religious grounds, they will
suffer the consequences. Public monies and gratuities will no longer be available to benefit the boys. No longer
can BSA accept public funding from the United Way's unallocated fund, go into public schools to recruit, and accept
government gratuities. BSA will have to rely solely on private donations. This will hurt the troops and the boys
financially, which is not what I set out to do.
A private club that only serves certain sectors of the community is not eligible for special privileges.
My worst fears have been realized. Religious zealots have seized control of BSA and they will destroy all that
has been good with their fear and loathing toward the nonreligious community. The BSA PHRC victory is hollow.
The BSA will lose respect from people who hold dear the moral tenet of non-discrimination. This ruling
now makes it perfectly clear that the BSA's definition of purpose is to service only the religious community. It
is a terrible loss of an opportunity to teach virtuous values such as tolerance, brotherhood, and reverence for
one's fellow man to the religious as well as the nonreligious.
Over the last seven years BSA's hierarchy has attempted to promote fear and hatred toward the nontheist
community. BSA distribute fund raising letters claiming that 'special interest groups' are trying to take God out
of Scouting. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nontheists simply wanted to say an oath that contained an
additional 'o.' We wanted to say an oath to 'Good.' This request would have imposed no burden on the Scouting program,
and would have accommodated nontheist participation. Exposure to whatever religious activities Scouting programs
might have was not objectionable to nontheists. What was objectionable was our rejection; sight unseen, ethical
duties unknown, and potential for good citizenship unproven.
Recently BSA declared that Unitarian Scouts will no longer be eligible to receive their religious emblems.
Unitarian values do not fall in line with the BSA. Unitarians are too tolerant and too sympathetic toward gays,
girls, and the godless. Discrimination within the BSA is getting worse. We will soon see BSA determining acceptable
and unacceptable religions. This is a terrible thing to teach children. In America where diversity is honored,
BSA shamelessly practice bigotry.
BSA has taken the low road and now marches to the same tune as right-wing fringe groups. It would have
been far better for BSA to follow the high road to tolerance. On that road they would find great company. The Girl
Scouts of America (GSA) took the lead six years ago and can proudly say they do not discriminate. GSA has not been
harmed and young ladies are being taught by example that discrimination is wrong and un-American.
PHRC has given BSA the green light to decide who is good enough and why. Would you want your children taught
morals by a group that promotes prejudice, intolerance, and separatism' I ask Scouting people everywhere, if you
believe in discrimination, then against whom else will you discriminate?
The Scouting hierarchy will be able to perpetuate discriminatory and un-American practices as a result
of its victory in this case. BSA has been granted the legal right to practice religious intolerance and now the
Boy Scout organization must carry the mantle of that intolerance for all to see.
There is only one way that people who love the Scouts can keep it from self destruction. There needs to
be a flood of protest from within the organization. Lone voices have been silenced by dismissal but the time has
come to bring BSA back into the mainstream and to demand its hierarchy to abide by Scout tenets of being kind,
helpful, tolerant, friendly, and thrifty.
The ground swell has begun. A group of Eagle Scouts at Yale and Harvard University who find the BSA's discrimination
policy reprehensible are organizing against BSA's religious only membership policy. They are still glad they are
Eagles, but this revelation that BSA aspires to be a narrow clique, imposing a religious test for membership, brings
Troop leaders who are embarrassed about BSA bigotry against gays and nontheists recently organized to form
'Scouting for All.' Their web site is www.scoutingforall.org. Their voices are being heard national and internationally.
I started the Anti-Discrimination Support Network (ADSN) in 1993 with the help of the Freethought Society
of Greater Philadelphia. ADSN will continue working to bring BSA back to the people and out of the hands of religious
In the meantime, I find comfort knowing that my son and I keep good company. Some people who would be excluded
from the Boy Scouts are: Albert Einstein, Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, Charles Darwin, Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov,
and many others whom we honor today for their contributions to humanity.
A recent study demonstrated that a large number of scientists do not believe in God. BSA's religious membership
policy systematically excludes boys with the potential to become great men from participating and contributing
to the program. This is a very sad day, indeed.