- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 2004

Wearing olive-green pants and light-brown shirts, they raise their right hands each week and recite the oath: “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country.”

Spoken by generations of Boy Scouts over the course of nearly a century, these words have joined the battle between lawyers and the Department of Defense.

The headline-making clash has left many Scouts — including thousands of adults who went through the Scout ranks decades ago — scratching their heads, wondering what could be unconstitutional about an organization basically devoted to camping, hiking and other outdoor skills.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois filed a lawsuit against the department in 1999, claiming U.S. military units have unconstitutionally supported hundreds of Boy Scout troops.

The Pentagon denied the claim, but a partial settlement on Nov. 15 required leadership to remind posts worldwide not to sponsor Scout troops in their official capacity.

Of course, service members may still lead troops on their own time, and the Scouts themselves may continue holding meetings on areas of military bases that are open to anybody.

But behind the news, some are flabbergasted by the lawsuit.

“The American people know this is bogus,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and Eagle Scout. “The Boy Scouts are not a religion. … They do nothing but good for young boys, and for the life of me I can’t understand why some of these groups have the right to tell them what their oath [should] say.”

More than 100 million American boys have been Scouts since the organization was chartered by Congress in 1916 with a bill signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson.

Mr. Sessions is among more than 200 members of Congress who were once Boy Scouts, including 22 who became Eagles, Scouting’s highest rank — an honor shared by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. There are no “former Eagle Scouts” — it is a lifetime honor, earned by fewer than 1 percent of Scouts. Among those who obtained Eagle rank were Apollo astronaut James Lovell, former NBA star and New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, and Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot.

The ACLU denies being part of an anti-Scout vendetta.

“It’s puzzling to me when people talk about ‘the ACLU’s lawsuit against the Boy Scouts,’” said ACLU spokesman Ed Yohnka. “We didn’t sue the Boy Scouts. … Our challenge was against government activity.”

The suit centered on the First Amendment’s so-called “EstablishmentClause,” which reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Lawyers said the Defense Department violated the Constitution by officially sponsoring an organization that requires members to believe in God.

“We haven’t kicked Scouts off military bases,” Mr. Yohnka said. “That’s not the intent of the suit. It’s not the intent of our effort. Our effort is an earnest one to ensure that our leaders abide by the Constitution.”

A Pentagon spokesman pointed to the Defense Department’s own rules. The Joint Ethics Regulation, DOD 5500.7-R, precludes the agency from officially sponsoring any nonfederal organization — including the Boy Scouts.

But on their own time, officials can take their sons camping out and to Scout meetings, Army Lt. Col. Joe Richard said.

“It is a solid family organization,” Col. Richard said. “It’s an institution that embodies the best and, frankly, the qualities that are important and unique to the United States: duty, honor, country. … The Department of Defense denies that its support for the BSA violates the law or the amendment in any way.”

Others are just still trying to understand what the First Amendment has to do with Scouting in the first place.

“The Boy Scouts aren’t about a religion,” said BSA spokesman Bob Bork. “It’s not about Christianity. It’s not about Judaism. … It’s not ‘establishing a religion.’ … What most of these [ACLU] people believe is beyond me. I can’t begin to understand it.”

But reading between the headlines, others see darker motives at work.

“Groups like the ACLU want to completely cleanse the public square of any evidence of religious faith,” said Gary Bauer, chairman of American Values. He said religious faith faces a “legal battering ram” that now “seems to be going after one issue at a time in an effort to strip any kind of public acknowledgment of religion.”

Nancy Pearcey, author of “Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity,” said the facts of this lawsuit must be placed in a larger culture war between Americans who may believe in God and those who want to remove Him from the public square. Mrs. Pearcey said this year’s election showed that people became more concerned about truth and morality than their checkbooks.

The deeper debate in the ACLU’s lawsuit, she said, thus lies between these voters and an organization that assumes religion is inherently private and does not belong in the marketplace of ideas.

“The real issue is the concept of truth itself,” she said. “[The ACLU’s] working assumption seems to be that … science is thought to be public truth, binding on everyone, but religion is just private feelings relevant only to those who believe it. … The bigger question here is whether things like religion and morality have an objective status.”

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