Will the Scouts Ever Admit Atheists?

The youth organization is finally reconsidering its ban on gay members. But it looks like another taboo will remain for a long time.

David Manning/Reuters

Now that the Boy Scouts of America is reconsidering mandatory discrimination against gay men and boys, might the organization also consider ending its mandatory religious discrimination, targeting non-believers? Not likely. Gay and lesbian people still encounter bias, of course, but in increasingly isolated segments of society. Bias against atheists remains much more respectable.

Secularist groups have protested government support for the Scouts, given its exclusion of the godless, but with a predictable lack of success or support, even from gay rights groups fighting the exclusion of gay people. The Human Rights Campaign, which courts religious groups, declined to join protests of the BSA's ban on atheists. GLAAD celebrates the proposed elimination of a national ban on gay scouts and leaders, without apparent concern that only godly gay people will benefit from it. But if gay atheists feel abandoned by gay rights groups, their abandonment was probably politic.

A majority of Americans would likely offer at least mild support for the BSA's officially non-sectarian, religious requirements, just as they support the recitation of prayers at every presidential inaugural. To qualify as a Boy Scout (or, it seems, as president), you have to swear a loyalty oath to God as well as country. And you have to subscribe to this Declaration of Religious Principle:

The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God ... The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe and the grateful acknowledgment of His favors and blessings are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing members.

"Whatever," non-believers might respond, many of whom probably joined the Scouts by professing fealty to these assertions with the same insincerity and resentment that I mouthed the words to the New York state prayer in elementary school. Reciting that prayer annoyed and alienated but didn't harm me. In fact, it helped shape my commitment to rights of speech and silence, which perhaps made me a better citizen, although not in ways that the drafters of the prayer intended.

Eventually, in 1962, the Supreme Court found New York's mandatory prayer unconstitutional: It violated the rights of students not to pray. But private associations are more like private individuals than public schools, and they have their own First Amendment rights to require declarations of belief in God. The Scouts have the right to ban openly gay members, the Supreme Court correctly held in 2000. The BSA has the same right to exclude acknowledged agnostics or atheists from membership, so long as it believes that "one of the key tenets of Scouting is 'duty to God.'"

Are there or should there be legal limits on the Scouts' right to discriminate? Yes, of course. Despite its allegiance to God, the BSA is not a religious organization, much less a church, and it is or should be barred by state and federal law from engaging in religious discrimination against employees. But atheists or agnostics who are barred or expelled from membership in the Scouts cannot and should not look to the courts for help.

Atheists who want to join associations that disdain them have to change the culture, not the law. Like gays and lesbians, they have to challenge popular notions of sin and immorality. And they have to sever the connection between godliness and patriotism, especially if they want to join the Scouts. Homosexuals too were once considered un-American, or deemed security risks, at least; but the link between belief in God and allegiance to country is particularly strong. Imagine a inauguration without a benediction or a state of the union address with no concluding plea for God to bless America, and perhaps you can imagine an officially godless Boy Scout.