Jewish World Review Nov. 18 2004 / 5 Kislev

Collin Levey

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Damning the Scouts | The new big threat to our civil liberties is a group of 10-year-olds with walking sticks.

At least, that's the message from the American Civil Liberties Union, which just chalked up its latest knockdown of the Boy Scouts: Via a lawsuit in Illinois, the once-proud civil-liberties group has strong-armed the Department of Defense into a worldwide ban on "sponsorship" by military bases of the charity's work.

The ACLU demanded the ban because Boy Scouts take a generic oath of faith in God. The decision still lets military personnel be involved with the Scouts on their own time, but it sends a loud message to Scout leadership that sounds something like "Pblllttt."

But then, blowing raspberries at the Boy Scouts is a top priority for the modern ACLU. In 2000, it fought all the way to the Supreme Court in a failed effort to force the organization to accept openly gay scoutmasters. "The ACLU is like a rabid dog when it comes to the Boy Scouts," says Boy Scouts national spokesman Robert Bork. If this keeps up, he adds, "pretty soon they'll come after the Marines for Semper Fidelis."

Another part of that lawsuit, yet to be decided, is directed against the federal Department of the Housing and Urban Development over its "Scoutreach" program, which grants federal support to inner-city Scout troops for field trips and after-school activities.

The Scouts are a major presence in Harlem and the boroughs. With more than 100,000 members in New York City, they've been a source of discipline and camaraderie for years.

Naturally, the ACLUers want all this good work stopped on the same grounds: The Scout Oath mentions God.

Similar lawsuits and campaigns have succeeded in pushing Boy Scouts off public lands in San Diego and off school property in Broward County, Fla. In Portland, Ore., United Way ended funding for more than 50,000 inner city-kids because of their ties to the Scouts. The same has occurred with the group's chapters in cities from San Francisco to Dallas to Tucson.

Meanwhile, Chicago, an early codefendent in the HUD/Pentagon suit, surrendered almost immediately, ending all support for the Scouts and banishing them from public schools. The ACLU thereupon issued a statement trumpeting its victory and exhorting other cities to "take a cue from Chicago's action and end their sponsorship of these discriminatory programs."

Reasonable people might wonder where the discrimination really lies. The more pressing concern for civil-rights advocates in a wealthy democracy should be for the children who aren't getting the education, support and moral training they need. But that doesn't seem to have the same frisson for the ACLU, or for congressional Democrats who've clambered onto the bandwagon against the Scouts.

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Back in 2000 when the gay-scouting issue was hot, House Democrats tried to revoke the Scouts' congressional charter (held since 1916) — while the Clinton administration considered banning the group's use of public lands.

Happily, the Pentagon's capitulation this week may have little practical effect. Less than 1 percent of scout troops have any military affiliation. But it's a big win for the ACLU.

After the gay-scoutmaster setback, the group switched tactics from belaboring the Scouts over alleged discrimination to belaboring them over allegedly trampling on the Establishment Clause's separation of church and state.

The Founding Fathers wanted to keep Americans free from religious persecution, but the ACLU has turned that impulse into an excuse to carry out its own persecutions in the name of anti-religion, regardless of the cost to schools, kids and the Boy Scouts.

Who's most at risk here? The same minority communities that have supported parochial school choice. For many underprivileged families, the Boy Scouts offers a fun and wholesome way to make friends and have experiences outside their usual neighborhoods. That's a wonderful thing for parents working two jobs and trying to do right by their kids.

Who'd have thought the virtues promoted by scouting would be controversial, even to professional "civil libertarians?" Far from inculcating one religion, the Boy Scouts offer merit badges for learning about a rainbow coalition of religions — from Mormons and Muslims to Hindus, Buddhists and Zoroastrians.

The Boy Scouts are part of America's melting-pot culture, and we should be loathe to let them become a casualty of narrow-minded crusades. Norman Rockwell probably said it best when he observed, "Scouts thrived when America believed in itself."

JWR contributor Collin Levey is a weekly op-ed columnist at the Seattle Times. Before joining the Times in September 2003, she was an editorial writer and editor for The Wall Street Journal. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2004, Collin Levey