Why Obama should resist the BSA

January 14, 2009

Yesterday, a coalition of secular organizations in the United States (including the Center for Inquiry and its affiliate, the Council for Secular Humanism) called on President-elect Obama to turn down the invitation to become the honorary president of Boy Scouts of America. This is because the BSA openly discriminates against nontheists (and against homosexuals).

As a former very active Boy Scout, and as a gay atheist, I applaud the fact that so many different organizations came together around this issue.

It is true that I have argued   in print that being barred from the Boy Scouts hardly affects one’s basic life prospects and that most experts agree that Scouting is not a "public accommodation" in which everyone has a right to be included. The BSA is a private organization (even if it sometimes draws on public funds for operations, which is another matter entirely). But the fact that the Chief Executive of the United States has traditionally been honorary president of the BSA has given weight and credibility to its discriminatory practices, and President-elect Obama has a great opportunity to show that he can enact real change in the way cognitive and sexual minorities are treated in our society.

As the letter from the secularist organizations stated:

  The BSA has elected to set itself apart as a private organization that may discriminate in ways contrary to the laws and practices required of local, state, and federal authorities. Accepting the title and role of honorary president of the Boy Scouts of America would thus send the message that institutional discrimination against people who don’t happen to believe in a god is acceptable.

  Many presidents of the United States have taken on the title of honorary president of the Boy Scouts of America. However, this tradition was established when discrimination against nontheists was, unfortunately, socially acceptable. Given that nontheists now make up a sizeable minority of the American population — having more numbers than Mormons, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews combined — the BSA is clearly out of touch with the spirit of pluralism, tolerance, and inclusiveness that compose today’s American values. By contrast, in 1993 the Girl Scouts of the United States of America adopted more inclusive policies.

You can read the whole letter   here .



#1 Jeff P (Guest) on Wednesday January 14, 2009 at 2:52pm

I don’t envy Obama in this decision.  So many good, descent people who are involved with Scouting, that have no beef with gays or atheists (nor even want to get into any of the discussion,) just want to have a good time with other people, learn new skills, spend time with Mom or Dad and friends. 

But I agree that it’s high time these guys were called on the carpet for what is more than, I think, a club-mentality or private gathering group, when BSA seems to show itself as something that all Americans should appreciate and respect.  To the extent that it is presented as somehow representing what’s “best” about America, it should be pointed out how it belittles subsets of good, decent Americans as well.

#2 Phillip (Guest) on Wednesday January 14, 2009 at 6:43pm

I have no problem with your stance on the BSA and I suspect that Obama would not either personally.  But, if he did refuse the honor he would end up fighting the repercussions from it for the next 4 years and not be able to accomplish anything.  Can you imagine how it would get twisted?
  Anyway, i think a better approach would be for him to accept the honor and then at some point recommend to them that they accept everyone.

#3 Anthony B. (Guest) on Thursday January 15, 2009 at 1:07pm

I agree with the sentiment and position expressed in the letter and feel that President-Elect Obama should decline the BSA’s offer.  It is a difficult political decision as Jeff mentioned, but the President-Elect has already slighted the gay and lesbian community by having Rick Warren give the invocation, as well as many nontheists simply by having a prayer and “so help me God” added to the oath.  I hope Obama makes some sort of gesture, at least, to represent the views of those who have been discriminated against by the BSA if he does not decline the offer.

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