Monday, November 29, 2004

Senate Republican leaders plan to move legislation next year to protect the Boy Scouts of America from attacks by liberal groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union over government ties to the organization, which has an oath that acknowledges God.

The Defense Department recently agreed to warn military bases that department policy does not allow them to be official sponsors of Boy Scout units and that military personnel may sponsor Boy Scout groups only in their civilian capacity.

The mid-November action was in response to an ongoing ACLU lawsuit that challenges a range of federal government support to the Boy Scouts, because the group administers a religious oath.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist introduced legislation this month stipulating that no federal law, directive, rule, instruction or order should limit any federal agency from providing support to the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, including meetings held on federal property.

“To this legislator, the ACLU’s continued attacks on the Boy Scouts is starting to become its own form of persecution,” said the Tennessee Republican, a former Scout, in a floor speech Nov. 20.

He tried to get the measure through the Senate by unanimous consent in the waning days of the congressional session, but Senate Democrats rebuffed him.

“There’s no question” that Mr. Frist will bring the measure back next year, said his spokesman, Bob Stevenson.

Action may be brewing on the House side of Capitol Hill also.

“I think it is absolutely ridiculous about how some people are trying to stamp out any reference to God when the government is connected to it,” said Rep. Joel Hefley, Colorado Republican and another former Scout. “Here’s a character-building group that has done so much good. … We need more character-building organizations for young people, rather than discouraging it.”

About 400 of the Boy Scouts’ 121,000 units had some affiliation with the military, so the organization is cooperating with the Defense Department to ensure all units come into compliance, Boy Scouts of America spokesman Bob Bork said.

He said that as a practical matter, the changes merely involve paperwork to ensure any military personnel involved with Boy Scout troops do so outside their official capacity.

Still, Mr. Bork said, “a lot of people are quite upset” about the matter. He has received many e-mails from military personnel worried that “something they value is being taken away from them.”

Mr. Hefley crafted a “sense of Congress” resolution saying the Defense Department should continue to exercise its long-standing statutory authority to support the activities of the Boy Scouts, particularly the periodic Boy Scout Jamborees.

He said his bill is meant to tell the Pentagon, “You have Congress’ backing behind you to continue doing what you’ve always done.”

A House leadership aide said the chamber can go farther than that, if needed. For instance, if members find the Pentagon’s policy needs changing, the House can do that, the aide said.

House Republican leaders haven’t committed to moving any specific piece of legislation, but are prepared to act.

“Through their service to their organization and our country, the Boy Scouts have protected more freedoms than the ACLU ever has, and the majority leader is committed to taking whatever action is necessary to make the relationship between our scouts and our soldiers as strong as ever,” said Shannon Flaherty, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican.

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