Eagle Scout Zach Wahls, 20, of Iowa City, Ia., talks after delivering a 280,000 signature petition to the Boy Scouts of America’s Annual Meeting in Orlando, May 30, 2012. Wahls, the son of gay parents, petitioned the Boy Scouts to change its policies towards homosexuality and to reinstate Jennifer Tyrrell, a den mother to her seven-year-old’s Cub Scout pack from Ohio, who was forced to resign for being a lesbian.
Here’s a better-late-than-never cheer to the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) for reconsidering its ban on gay scouts and leaders.
That’s one small step for tolerance, but one giant leap for states’ rights. The modified policy would, in effect, kick the can down the road to local sponsors, who could continue the abominable policy of deeming gay teenagers too “immoral” to participate in Boy Scout activities.
There is no similar step forward for atheists. This modified policy would still require local groups to discriminate against atheists, apparently because the Boy Scout Oath implies that an atheist can’t be “morally straight” unless he can do his “duty to God.”
Using this twisted logic, a number of courageous and honest atheists have been kicked out of the Scouts for rejecting all supernatural beliefs. Among them was my friend Darrell Lambert, an Eagle Scout, who had been supported by his entire troop.
Cut to the military, which now allows gays and has always allowed atheists to serve openly and honorably. See, for instance, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. However, even atheists with an honorable discharge are not deemed fit to serve as Boy Scout leaders. This brings to mind Pat Tillman, who left an outstanding professional football career after the 9/11 attacks to volunteer as an Army Ranger. Had Pat survived, even he would have been excluded from Boy Scout leadership.
After several combat tours, Pat Tillman died in Afghanistan, becoming a poster boy for the heroic activities of the military. Tillman’s family was as honest as he, and worked diligently to uncover the Army’s lies surrounding his death. Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich, under whom Tillman was serving at the time of his death, said about the Tillman family. “These people have a hard time letting it go. It may be because of their religious beliefs.” He added, “When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don’t believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing and now he is no more… I do not know how an atheist thinks, I can only imagine that would be pretty tough.”
The BSA probably considered reversing its policy on gays because several pro-equality, corporate sponsors had withdrawn their support. But with new leadership and more sponsor withdrawals, the BSA will eventually be forced to change its position on gays. Someday, they might even consider changing their anti-atheist stance if enough corporate sponsors object to the policy. It would be especially gratifying to see the BSA admit gays and atheists because it’s the moral thing to do, and not simply for financial reasons.
Every president of the United States has supported the work of the Boy Scouts of America since its founding in 1910, and each served as honorary president of the BSA during his term in office. Barack Obama is the first president to allow gays to serve openly in the military, and I hope he will become the first president to resign as honorary president of the BSA until that organization ends its ban on gays and atheists.
I look forward to a day when the Boy Scouts become as tolerant as the Girl Scouts, who have refused to discriminate against any girl for any reason because they regard lesbian and atheist girls as equals. When that day comes, the BSA can claim to be as morally straight as their exemplars–the Girl Scouts of America.
Editor’s note: This column has been updated to reflect the Boy Scouts of America’s decision to allow local troops to decide whether or not to admit gay members.
Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America and author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt.”