THE BLOG
05/31/2016 05:00 pm ET Updated May 31, 2017

Boy Scouts, Unitarians, and Atheists

I was pleased when I heard last year that the President of the Boy Scouts of America, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, called for an end to the ban on gay leaders. But my brief satisfaction turned to disappointment when I learned his reason: Otherwise courts might force the BSA to radically modify its positions. Gates also wanted the BSA to give church sponsors of scout troops the option to reject gay leaders.

Gates further said he worried that a court order might overturn the BSA policy of banning atheist scouts and troop leaders. He wanted the BSA to maintain its right to promote religious bigotry, while he was willing to, sort of, give in on the anti-gay policy.

The change happened just as Gates proposed. Atheists and agnostics still need not apply. Gates cited membership decline as another reason to change the policy regarding gay boys and adults. Perhaps he did not realize that religiously unaffiliated young people are rapidly increasing across all demographic lines--another reason to welcome atheists and agnostics.

On May 26, Gates ended his BSA term and was replaced by AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, who has not said if he will propose any policy changes.

Not all churches had supported BSA policies. The national Unitarian Universalist Association took a principled stand and disaffiliated from the BSA in 1998 because of its discrimination against gays and atheists. Unfortunately, the UUA recently decided to affiliate again because the BSA ended its ban on gay leaders, even though it continues to ban atheists. This decision is particularly perplexing because the tolerant Unitarian Church counts many atheists and agnostics among its members throughout the country.

My wife and I are atheists and token members of our local Unitarian Church in Charleston, South Carolina. We have long supported and appreciated this church because of its commitment to social justice in our conservative community, and its welcoming inclusion of atheists and humanists. When we learned the dismaying news that the national UUA has re-affiliated with the Boy Scouts, we told our local minister that we wouldn't be making our annual financial contribution while the situation continues. We don't blame our local church, but we hope that its minister will vocally support the many atheists and humanists in his congregation and oppose the UUA decision.

Probably the group most upset with the UUA/BSA affiliation is the nontheistic UU Humanists, which is also a member of the Secular Coalition for America. I'm on the board of directors of the American Humanist Association, which held its annual conference in Chicago from May 26-29. The UU Humanists attending the conference arranged for a Sunday breakfast and lively discussion there with UUA President Peter Morales and some AHA members. I admire Rev. Morales for agreeing to talk with a group he knew would disagree strongly with the recent Boy Scouts decision.

Morales told participants that the UUA cherishes and respects the humanists, agnostics, and atheists among its members, and that he feels the best way to change BSA policy is from the inside rather than from the outside.

After his brief talk, I asked the first question: "Would you have supported UUA affiliation with the BSA if they had excluded Jews, Muslims, African-Americans, or any other minority but atheists and humanists?" Rev. Morales hemmed and hawed and never did say yes or no. When someone asked why the UUA had disaffiliated from BSA over the gay issue instead of working for change from the inside, Morales indicated that these are judgment calls on which reasonable people can disagree.

Morales said that boys and adults who want to join the Boy Scouts through a local Unitarian Church could be given membership without a god requirement, but it was pointed out that only a small portion of atheists are associated with the Unitarian Church.

Many of us are especially concerned with the BSA principle of equating God with morality. Though Morales expressed sympathy with the concerns of humanists and atheists, most in the audience were disappointed that the UUA has not yet strongly repudiated the requirement that scouts or leaders must sign a document that says, "The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God."

What most disheartened me was Rev. Morales's attempt to placate humanists and atheists by telling us we can simply make up different definitions of "God" in order to pass the religious test requirement. What he failed to understand is that we want to show we can be good without any gods, and help end the unwarranted prejudice against atheists.

This reminded me of my run for governor of South Carolina in 1990 to challenge the state constitution requirement that prohibited atheists from holding public office. Some state lawyers argued in court that no constitutional change was needed because I surely could find some kind of god to believe in. The head of the Election Commission said I wouldn't have been questioned about my religious beliefs had I kept quiet about them. In other words, I should have lied and deliberately violated our state constitution requirement. We have enough ethical problems with political leaders without formally sanctioning such hypocrisy. Fortunately, I won a state Supreme Court victory in 1997 that nullified the anti-atheist clause in the constitution.

A number of courageous and honest atheists have been kicked out of the Boy Scouts for rejecting God beliefs. Apparently, the BSA does not consider honesty a core value in becoming the best kind of citizen, and would rather that boys pretend to believe. This certainly would teach boys a lesson on how best to prepare for political careers, since open atheists currently have little chance of being elected to just about any public office. This situation is particularly sad because it teaches boys who are deemed moral enough to be admitted as Scouts that prejudice is OK.