The Boy Scouts in the cross hairs

Rich Lowry
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Posted: Mar 11, 2004 12:00 AM

Are courtesy and cheerfulness religious tenets? Is building a campfire a sacred rite? Is a neckerchief the equivalent of a priest's stole?

In their determination to do legal injury to the Boy Scouts in any way possible, the American Civil Liberties Union and other opponents of the Scouts are effectively answering "yes," "yes" and "yes." In the wake of the Supreme Court's Dale decision in 2000, upholding the right of the Scouts to keep homosexuals from serving as scoutmasters, there has been a wide-ranging effort to punish the Scouts for exercising their First Amendment right of free association. The latest hit, in San Diego, depends on the absurd argument that the Boy Scouts are a kind of church.

Who knew that an institution pulled straight from a Norman Rockwell painting would become "controversial," the contemporary euphemism for "under assault by the Left," and therefore likely to be abandoned by the gutless and easily-cowed everywhere? The Supreme Court just declined to hear a Boy Scout appeal of a Connecticut decision to single them out for exclusion from a list of 900 charities that were part of a state-worker voluntary-donation plan. This might endanger 150-something similar donation plans around the country. Meanwhile, United Way chapters are being pressured to stop donating to the Scouts, and roughly 60 have knuckled under.

This squeeze on charitable giving will hurt most those poor urban kids who can't afford things like their own uniforms. Little do such kids know that in wanting to develop their character and skills they are committing, by extension, alleged acts of bigotry. They are among the 1 million American boys who are collateral damage in the anti-Scout blitzkrieg.

The ACLU is making this "gotcha" argument in San Diego: The Boy Scouts claimed in the Dale case that they are a religious organization, but if they are indeed a religious organization, they shouldn't be receiving public benefits. The Solomonic souls on the San Diego City Council bought it. The city agreed to cancel a lease in Balboa Park with the Boy Scouts and pay the ACLU nearly $1 million in legal fees, thus subsidizing its harassment of the Scouts. Maybe San Diego taxpayers can pony up cash to support the ACLU's work on behalf of exotic dancers next.

It is possible to be an organization made up of religious believers without being a religion or a church, as the Scouts are arguing in a countersuit in San Diego. California's liberal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has held: "First, a religion addresses fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters. Second, a religion is comprehensive in nature; it consists of a belief system as opposed to an isolated teaching. Third, a religion often can be recognized by the presence of certain formal and external signs."

Does this describe the Scouts? The Boy Scouts ask members to do their duty to country and God, but the "imponderables" usually don't go much deeper than how to tie a figure-eight knot. Christians, Jews, Muslims, anyone who believes in God qualifies as a member, which makes the organization an odd sort of religion. The Scout Law provides that a scout be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent -- a laundry list of virtues that is thoroughly nonsectarian and nonobjectionable.

The Scouts' attackers are not seeking "neutrality" in how the government regards religion. They want to whip any organization with a serious commitment to morality out of the public arena, enshrining what Justice Arthur Goldberg once called "a brooding and pervasive devotion to the secular."

Liberal commentators have charged that President Bush, by endorsing a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, has "reignited" the culture war. The ongoing anti-Scout campaign shows that the culture war was raging long before Bush's entry into it, and that the aggressors are those who hate the Boy Scouts and all that they represent. For them, "scout's honor" are fighting words.