“Boy Scouts of America believes that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God.”
—Boy Scouts of America Legal Issues website (bsalegal.org)
With another school year under way, another crop of Knox County boys is arriving home excited about presentations they heard from distinguished-looking visitors to their buildings: representatives of the Boy Scouts of America.
“It’s about kids going out and having fun in the outdoors, with adult mentors,” says Larry Brown, executive director of the Great Smoky Mountains Council of the Boy Scouts. At the beginning of the school year, Brown says local troops go into many of the public elementary schools to make short recruiting pitches. They encourage boys and their families to come out to informational evenings and learn about Scout programs.
“It’s a school-by-school basis, and most of our talks are during non-classroom time, like during lunch,” Brown says.
But some parents have raised concerns about the Scouts’ presence this year. Knox County Schools spokeswoman Melissa Copelan says in an e-mail, “Recently, a few parents have indicated that instructional time may be being used in some elementary schools for informational activities of the Boy Scouts. It is the expectation of the KCS that instructional time not be used for any of the above stated activities, and this expectation will be reinforced with school administrators.”
The issue, as it often is with Boy Scouts of America, is the organization’s stances on religion and sexual orientation. BSA includes a belief in a higher power as a requirement for membership, and it maintains that homosexuality is inconsistent with the Boy Scout oath to be “morally straight.” In the past few decades the Boy Scouts have been sued several times by agnostic, atheist, and gay families or individuals. The Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the group had a First Amendment right (under freedom of association) to expel a gay assistant Scoutmaster.
That victory came with some costs. There were high-profile defections: Eagle Scout Steven Spielberg quit the organization, some corporate donors withdrew support, and there was a succession of further lawsuits—some successful, some not—seeking to limit the Scouts’ access to public property or buildings. In response, Congress added a section to the 2001 No Child Left Behind act guaranteeing Boy Scout groups the same access to school buildings as any other community group.
In Knox County, Copelan says, the schools also allow the Scouts to:
“Distribute fliers at back-to-school time inviting 1st thru 5th grade boys and their families to learn about and to join Cub Scouting.
“Facilitate BSA contact with parent organizations to allow BSA representatives to discuss the benefits of scouting with parents and family members.
“Grant permission to use elementary campus cafeterias at no charge on one night August/September-scheduled with each campus principal to conduct the informational and recruiting programs and to make the time and place of the meeting known to parents.
“Make BSA Career Interest Surveys available to high school students.”
Brown says the Great Smoky Mountains Council has more than 11,000 members across 21 East Tennessee counties. He says the group does not teach intolerance, religious or otherwise. “We’re an organization that does believe in a higher being,” he says. “But we don’t define that for families. We’re nonsectarian. We have Muslim Scouts, we have Jewish Scouts, we have Christian Scouts.”
Deron Smith, director of public relations for the Boy Scouts’ national office in Texas, says it’s up to parents to decide if they want their children to join. A child of atheist parents could sign up, as long as he was willing to acknowledge a higher power. Likewise a child of gay parents: “The sexuality of a child’s parents does not prevent him from joining the Boy Scouts of America, nor does it prevent the parents of the child from participating,” Smith says. But gay parents cannot become Scoutmasters or local leaders.
Copelan says Knox County makes no special allowances for the Boy Scouts, and refers to the section of the 2001 federal law. “As a public entity with a limited public forum and one that receives federal funding,” Copelan writes in an e-mail, “the Knox County Schools is compliant with Section 9525 of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act.” But according to the federal law, “limited public forum” means the use of school facilities “before or after the hours during which attendance at the school is compulsory.” It would not seem to mandate any access during the school day.
Brown says reaching students in elementary schools is important to membership recruiting. “It would hurt us if we weren’t allowed to talk to kids in the schools,” he says. But, he adds, “We know not every family’s going to join the Scouts. Just like not everybody’s going to join soccer or football or whatever.”
Boy Scouts, in other words, are not for everyone.
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