Tuesday, November 16, 2004

CHICAGO — The Pentagon has agreed to warn military bases worldwide that they should not directly sponsor Boy Scout troops, partially resolving accusations that the government has improperly supported a group that requires members to believe in God.

The settlement, announced yesterday, stemmed from a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which said U.S. military units have sponsored hundreds of Boy Scout troops.

“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 lawyer Adam Schwartz.

The Pentagon said it long has 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 on their own time, and the Scouts still will be able to have meetings on areas of military bases where civilian organizations are allowed to hold events.

Leaders of some of the Boy Scouts’ 300 regional councils reached yesterday said they knew nothing about the Pentagon’s action.

“We haven’t been given any information,” said Dave McChesney, Scout executive of the San Francisco Bay Area Council.

Nor was he aware of the lawsuit brought by the ACLU.

Asked whether any of the Scout troops in his council are directly sponsored by military bases, Mr. McChesney said, “I can’t think of one that is.”

He also said he is not worried that relations between the Scouts and the U.S. military will be strained.

“Our relations with the federal government and with state and local governments have all been fantastic. I’m sure they will remain that way,” Mr. McChesney said.

Larry Abbott, Scout executive of the Grand Canyon Council in Phoenix, said yesterday none of the Boy Scout troops in his council is sponsored by military installations.

“But I know that’s the situation in different parts of the country,” Mr. Abbott said. But he could not provide specifics.

Mr. Abbott added: “We’ve had really good support from the military, and we’re positive that will continue.”

The Rev. Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called the Pentagon’s new warnings to all military bases “very wise advice.”

“It’s important that the federal government — including the military — not sponsor any organization that discriminates on the basis of religion.”

The Boy Scouts does discriminate, he said, in that it requires members to believe in God.

“In the long run, this change will be a good protection for religious freedom and diversity,” Mr. Lynn said.

Yesterday’s settlement does not resolve other ACLU charges 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, Mr. Schwartz said.

Lawyer Marcia Berman, who represented the Defense Department, declined to comment on the settlement yesterday. 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 ACLU lawsuit named as defendants the city of Chicago, the Department of Defense and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The city of Chicago settled, agreeing not to engage in official sponsorship of Scout activities.

Staff reporter Joyce Price contributed to this report.

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