Thursday, November 25, 2004

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has entered the fray over the Defense Department’s relationship with the Boy Scouts of America, endorsing in a letter to the House speaker continued support of Scout troops who meet on military bases.

At least three conservative Republican lawmakers have sent letters to Mr. Rumsfeld protesting a Bush administration partial legal settlement of a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union’s Illinois chapter. The Justice Department, representing the Pentagon, agreed to warn military commanders not to officially sponsor Scout units.

The ACLU contends the government sponsorship violates religious freedoms since the Boy Scouts require members to pledge allegiance to God.

Irate over what they consider caving in to the liberal ACLU, the lawmakers want Mr. Rumsfeld to overturn the settlement.

“Without a shot being fired, Department of Defense lawyers apparently abandoned the Boy Scouts, threw up their hands and surrendered to the ACLU’s latest radical attack on the cherished heritage and values of this nation,” wrote Rep. J.D. Hayworth, Arizona Republican, in a letter to Mr. Rumsfeld.

The secretary responded to lawmakers in a Nov. 19 letter to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican. Mr. Rumsfeld, an Eagle Scout, said he supported a House resolution that promises continued military support.

“The Department of Defense takes great pride in its longstanding and rich tradition of support to the Boy Scouts of America,” said the letter, a copy of which was obtained yesterday by The Washington Times. “Accordingly, the Department of Defense supports the proposed concurrent resolution expressing the sense of Congress that the Department of Defense should continue to exercise its statutory authority to support the activities of the Boy Scouts of America, in particular the periodic national and world Boy Scout Jamborees.”

The pledge to support jamborees is important because the ACLU’s 1999 lawsuit, in which the partial settlement was reached Nov. 15, also wants the federal court to ban the Pentagon from spending taxpayer money on Scout events. The Justice Department is fighting that demand. A ruling is pending.

The Pentagon spends about $2 million to support jamborees, including one at Fort A.P. Hill, an Army base in Virginia, which attracts about 40,000 troop members every four years.

Mr. Hayworth and other lawmakers have asked Mr. Rumsfeld to work to overturn the Justice Department settlement. But Mr. Rumsfeld made no such pledge in his letter to the House speaker. Previously, a spokesman had said the defense secretary was unaware of the pending settlement.

The military has maintained a long-standing relationship with Boy Scouts, an organization chartered by the federal government. The partial settlement will end military bases’ official sponsorship of about 400 units. Boy Scouts spokesman Bob Bork says those troops are finding new sponsors, which include the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The American Legion also weighed in on the ACLU court victory. National Commander Thomas P. Cadmus sent a letter to Mr. Rumsfeld asking him to “stand up for scouts.”

“For certain, outrage over this and other actions taken against the Boy Scouts of America in recent times is, today, reverberating through the ranks of the American Legion,” Mr. Cadmus wrote. “On behalf of the 2.7 million men and women of the Legion, I am asking you to hold the line of assault on the Scouts. Stand up to the ACLU.”

The ACLU’s counterargument is that the Pentagon should not be sponsoring an organization that requires an oath to God.

“If our Constitution promise of religious liberty is to be a reality, the government should not be administering religious oaths or discriminating based upon religious beliefs,” said Adam Schwartz of the ACLU of Illinois. “This agreement removes the Pentagon from direct sponsorship of Scout troops that engage in religious discrimination.”

Scout officials say they can live with the partial settlement but worry the ACLU will convince the federal courts to sever all taxpayer support for Scout activities.

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