The Pentagon has agreed to issue warnings to military bases worldwide not to directly sponsor Boy Scout troops, partially resolving claims that the government has engaged in religious discrimination by supporting a group that requires its members to believe in God.
The settlement, announced Monday, is part of a series of legal challenges in recent years over how closely the government should be aligned with the Boy Scouts of America, a venerable organization that boasts a membership of more than 3.2 million. Civil liberties advocates have set their sights on the organization's policies because the group bans openly gay scout leaders and compels members to swear an oath of duty to God. The American Civil Liberties Union believes that direct government sponsorship of such a program amounts to discrimination. "If our Constitution's promise of religious liberty is to be a reality, the government should not be administering religious oaths or discriminating based on religious beliefs," said ACLU attorney Adam Schwartz.
The Pentagon said it has long had a rule against sponsorship of nonfederal organizations and denied that the rule had been violated. But it agreed to send a message to posts worldwide warning them not to sponsor Boy Scout troops or other such groups.
The rule does not prevent service members from leading Scout troops unofficially on their own time, and BSA troops will still be able to hold meetings on areas of military bases where civilian organizations are allowed to hold events.
The settlement does not resolve other ACLU claims involving government spending that benefits the Boy Scouts, such as money used to prepare a Virginia military base for the Boy Scout Jamboree and grants used by state and local governments to benefit the Boy Scouts, Schwartz said. He said the Pentagon spends $2 million every year to prepare the Virginia base for the jamboree, held once every four years. He said the Defense Department also makes annual allocations of $100,000 to support Boy Scout units on military bases overseas and $100,000 to improve Boy Scout properties, such as summer camps.
Attorney Marcia Berman, who represented the Defense Department, declined Monday to comment on the settlement. But Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said the message that will be sent to bases represents "a clarification of an existing rule that DOD personnel cannot be involved in an official capacity." The original ACLU lawsuit named as defendants the Department of Defense, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Chicago board of education. The school board settled, agreeing not to engage in official sponsorship of scouting activities.