Culture Ethics Institutions

One Scouts ban remains intact: Atheists

A Boy Scout marches with his troop during the Memorial Day parade in Smithtown, N.Y., May 27. RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz

(RNS) The decision by the Boy Scouts of America to accept openly gay Scouts has raised the question: Are atheists and other nonbelievers — the only remaining group BSA still bans — next?

No one is holding their breath, least of all Neil Polzin, an Eagle Scout who was fired from his job in 2009 as an aquatics director at a Boy Scout camp in San Diego after he admitted to being an atheist.

A Boy Scout marches with his troop during the Memorial Day parade in Smithtown, N.Y., May 27. RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz

A Boy Scout marches with his troop during the Memorial Day parade in Smithtown, N.Y., May 27. RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz

“I don’t see that happening, at least not in the immediate future,” Polzin said. “The focus has always been on the Scouts’ discrimination against gays and it seems atheists were always on a back burner or not discussed at all.”

But that doesn’t mean nonbelievers — atheists, humanists and other nontheists — have abandoned their quest for inclusion. In the wake of the BSA’s May 23 vote that led to the inclusion of gay Scouts — but not gay scoutmasters — every major organization of nonbelievers has issued a statement condemning their continued exclusion.

A BSA official declined to comment, but issued a statement that said, in part, that since the organization had “just completed a lengthy review process, there are no plans for further review on this matter.”

The problem for atheists lies in an oath in which scouts promise to “do my duty to God and my country.” Some nonbelievers have suggested their sons change the word “God” to “good,” but the BSA has remained firm. Some atheist children have been asked to leave after years in Scouting when it was revealed that they did not believe in God.

That’s what happened to Margaret Downey’s son, Matthew, in the early 1990s. After seven years in the Scouts, he was forced to drop out — or lie about his disbelief in God. Downey filed a lawsuit on her son’s behalf, but it was soon made moot by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2000 decision in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale which found that, as a private organization, the Boy Scouts can make their own membership rules.

Downey, now president of The Freethought Society, a group that advocates for nonbelievers, said she was not encouraged by last week’s vote.

“We have seen great success with the gay community, but they have fallen short of the goal” of total inclusion, she said. “We have an even more difficult road ahead of us because the nontheist community has been hated for so long that when we try to get respect and equality we are met with pure prejudice, and that is what we see the BSA doing.”

According to Andrew Koppelman, a law professor at Northwestern University and author of a book critical of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dale case, religion was not a sticking point at the BSA’s founding in 1910. It became important during the Cold War fear of “godless communists” — the same time the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.

R. Chip Turner, national chairman of the BSA’s Religious Relationships Task Force, said after the recent vote that Scouting officials are committed to the “duty to God” language. “That is a core principle,” he said.

BSA bylaws declare the organization to be “nonsectarian,” and its bylaws and charter do not permit the exclusion of any boy — gay, atheist or otherwise. But sections in the Scout Oath have been interpreted to ban nonbelievers (“my duty to God”) and until recently, gays (“to keep myself … morally straight”). 

For atheists to gain inclusion, Koppelman said, more than the Boy Scouts would have to change.

“Gays have changed from cultural pariahs to a group whose civil rights are taken seriously,” he said. “Atheists have been trying to do the same thing to some extent, but they have not been as successful as the gays. They would have to work hard to change the culture.”

(Adelle M. Banks contributed to this report.)


About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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  • There’s no reason for the BSA to exclude atheists anymore. The Scout Oath is dead.

  • I never remember being asked about my faith when I was a Boy Scout. It never came up once that I can recall. Who cares if a Scout is an atheist? It is actions that really matter. If the Charter declares that they are nonsectarian, then the question about faith is prohibited anyway.

  • Atheists are dangerous. They could just lash out at a logical fallacy at any moment without warning. They laugh at Satan. Even prayers to Jesus don’t phase them, and you know how powerful prayers to Jesus are – Whoa! I mean WHOA! I have seen an atheist walk in front of a crucifix without even noticing – scary.

    I think the Boy Scouts are right, letting in atheists would be too dangerous. What if one of them put the burden of proof on one of the leaders? They would have to call in priests trained in reverse exorcisms to install God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost.

    Atheists, – far too dangerous for the Boy Scouts.

  • Don’t even risk letting religious models be subjected to logic, reason, and the evidence of the world. Keep discussions of why any god would let congregations in Philadelphia, Oregon, and other places across the country refuse medical technology in favor of praying to the same BSA god and to the grisly demise of dozens of young children. You can’t disbelieve in such a god, but you can’t ask why these church goers who take this BSA oath to the ultimate test never, EVER get even an aspirin’s worth of medical reprieve, much less a complete healing. Yes, you might hear such a story around the camp fire and start wondering with your comrades, just how the idea of loving caring gods exists with the facts around us.

  • I was a scoutmaster in the 70’s
    The leaders of the BSA did not ask us to require that our scouts belonged to any one religion or if the scout believed in equal rights for all.
    This came with the fact that they spoke the oath of allegnce as I hope is still required.
    The pledge of allegnce was accepted by all scouts. That is all that should be required. Morally fit doesn’t mean that every one be the same.
    The hub bubb raised by a few people reminds me of when your skin color be the same as everyone else.

  • Why would a non-believer want to be in BSA. The fact that they discriminate as they do should make you want to get as far away from them as you can. They are not a healthy organization for kids to be in. Look at their continued ban on homosexuals for leaders. Yes you can be gay and be a scout, but upon graduation you are a filthy faggot again. Who would want to be around such insanity. Surely there are secular organizations for kids that are not bat sh*t crazy.

  • Gay boys who have any “honor,” any self-respect, should refuse to have anything to do with the Boy Scouts after the blistering prejudice BSA has hypocritically hurled at them for generations, even before the time when “gay” or “queer” dared be mentioned with any political correctness.

    Perhaps the Boy Scouts think like Michelle Bachmann’s husband, the “psychologist” who collects big federal funds for his efforts to make straights out of gays by banging them on the head with a bible, that they can “correct” the “perversions” of these kids who are so badly, “intrinsically disordered.”

  • Ms Downey thinks “the nontheist community has been hated for so long”? I don’t personally know any Christians who hate nontheists, but if she perceives hatred I’ll take her word for it. I just don’t think any of my nontheist friends would agree that they are gettign hatred from me and theior other Christian friends.

    As for what the Scouts do, I think their deistic oath is as much of a problem for people who are serious about their faith as for those who are nontheist. They should drop that just like they did the ban on gays. And then churches that sponsor scout troops should embrace these scouts and minister to them.


  • well indeed, so change the oath, make it pointless, so everybody can fit. If BSA dont accept Gays, or atheists, then they shoud make their own boyscouts organization, rather then have the nerve to demand change form evrybody. the whole spirit of this organbization is to promote values among young people, so if the individuals dont fit those values, what is the point for the existance of the organization. this is stupid! if you dont stand your ground and defend your values, you will loose exactly those things that make you better then Africa, or some parts of Asia.

  • Acceptance of others should be a message for any youth organization, including the Boy Scouts. All of this hate towards others needs to stop. Look at some art and leave each other alone!

  • I never really thought about being atheist. I just never believed in god. I don’t see why everyone makes such a big deal out of it. I’ve been in boy scouts for years, and I only just learned about this. I don’t like the word atheist Because you shouldn’t have to call someone that. Discrimination against people, because of being gay, their color, their religion, is just barbaric! This is the 21st century people! This kind of thing should of ended decades ago. To see kind people called monsters because they are different saddens me. I’m not trying to tell anyone to be atheist but this is the reason I’m not religious. It seems to cause this kind of thing and if no one was religious, this wouldn’t happen. I respect other people’s beliefs. It gives them a real goal in life. But to turn it into this kind of thing is just horrible.

  • Religion is just an explanation for things people like you don’t understand. The problem is, religious extremists, like you, don’t take time to understand it.

  • Yeah, the military and C.I.A. would need to be called in if someone didn’t believe in God, the magical person in the sky who we have no proof of besides in books which for all we know could be fictional. We should get them to put logic aside, stop doing things by themselves, and wish for good things to happen to them. Sure it didn’t help people during 9/11 or countless wars caused by our beliefs, but yeah, you’re right, people who believe in logic are scary. WOAH!

  • Pfft, jokes on them, I just never said god when I did the oath. No one seemed to care. Opted out of the Scouts Own service on Sundays. Still got Eagle Scout. BAM, in you face BSA (you tried to keep me from eagle for an entirely different reason but i got it anyway).

  • I am atheist and run the troop I’ve dedicated half of my life to scouting and knowing I will be rejected of eagle kills me I think we should be left alone like gay people are now no disrespect to them

  • You don’t understand how the BSA works do you? MY Troop has tons of atheists and no one seems to give a damn. Religion to us doesn’t matter, what matters is your actions. Ultimatley our Troop though does not decide national policy for the BSA we are but a small chapter of a large council. Our system works like a Federal system, a National council in charge of national events and high adventure bases that it maintains. Smaller councils to decide policy for an area of the country to maintain regional camps and events and OA lodges for specific areas with OA members. It works like this but no one really enforces things too well, it depends on who your Team, Troop, Crew, Ship is chartered by. Mine is chartered by Kiwanis and is headquartered in our town Methodist Church but religion is not really bought up, hell we haven’t had a chaplains aid for a year, I don’t even think ones had one appointed for the last four Senior Patrol Leaders. It really depends on who you’re chartered by and the people in your community, live in a very conservative community and come out atheist, you will probably get kicked out, live in a more moderate and liberal area and come out as atheist in your unit and they probably accept you or not really care.

  • That is probablay the most [expletive deleted] excuse for banning atheist I have ever heard, you do realize that the constitution guarantees religous freedom without discremination, what the boy scouts are doing is unconstitutional.

  • Unfortunately, I was told that to become and Eagle scout, you are asked whether you believe in God(or a god) or not. Also, unfortanately, as a scout with a rank between him and Eagle, and an Atheist, my hard work is for nothing.

  • As an Atheist, I personally joined at a young age, A) before I really understood religion B) before I WAS atheist And C) Before I KNEW there was a religious requirment.

  • Consider yourself lucky, my troop was affiliated with what one might consider a very tame small church and more liberal than most, at least in the Bible Belt. I only live 45 min away from The Eye of Sauron (Bob Jones) and was basically forced at the time to acknowledge the holy spirit, jesus, etc and whatever other nonsense. Being 16 at the time, and wanting to please my Mom I lied after debating with the preacher. Been thinking about turning in my eagle scout, if such a thing is possible. Am I overreacting?

  • I’m in the same boat as you… Would hate to lie, but I don’t want to get rejected because of something as trival as my belief.

  • I agree with Matthew 100%. I have been SPL twice, gone to two high adventure bases, brotherhood member of the OA, and Staffed my council NYLT. I am also agnostic. I have, in my unbiased opinion, more values than those who are deep in their faith so the BSA to me saying that Athiests and Agnostics do not have a role model status is wrong and extremely judgmental and not very kind. It kills me that to be an Eagle Scout I must have faith in god which to me is ridiculous. I dont want to get rejected by this dumb rule because I have already devoted my young life to this. I feel I deserve the title of Eagle Scout and something as trivial as belief shouldnt be their business. Just thoughts from a 16 year old scouter.

  • I agree that the atheist ban should be lifted, but as a scout I still stand by the non religious aspects of the oath.

  • What you refer to as “values” are nothing more than bigoted criteria. The scouts are worthless as an organization of integrity as long as they desperately cling to Jim Crow type discriminatory measures. There’s no merit in being religious, so why press for it to be mandatory? Is this spiritual? Judging by your grammar and xenophobic statements you are a very stupid individual and I hope not affiliated with the scouts. It’s too bad that being a fearful imbecile is the desired stance of an organization that once was more oriented towards personal growth and community.

  • I am sorry, but I just don’t get it. A person joins a religious organization (a church, etc.) because that person believes in God (or gods, or whatever the particular religions organization preaches. Why would an atheist want to join a church? Why should a church be required to allow him to join? The same is true for the scouts. It is a religious organization. Why would an atheist want to join it? Just because he was told that he can’t?

    That being said, I do understand that there are certain arrangements between the scouts and the government may be in violation of current interpretations of the “separation of church and state”, but those don’t seem to be the source of people’s anger here.

  • I agree. One can be reverent without god, I have been for the past eight years. I’ve been a scout longer than I’ve been an atheist, and I find it insulting that they think I can’t be just as much of a scout as anyone else, simply because I don’t believe in a magic man in the sky.

  • Because we all know you need to lie for years to earn a rank that you get by being honest?…

    Brain. Hurts.

  • I am working my way to Eagle Scout, but I’m an atheist. I want my Eagle for the scholarship and resume perks, but basically, once I get my Eagle, I’ll say,”Eat it you Nazi Pigs, I’m an atheist!”.

  • I agree totally, Matthew. I’m an Eagle Scout and have earned my 2nd Bronze Palm, and I’ve been an atheist for two years. I plan to inform the Boy Scouts and watch them try to stop me from wearing my award with pride.

  • Dylan, the Boy Scouts aren’t bound by the same laws as the federal government. The Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Boy Scouts can deny membership based on pretty much anything they want to, with the exception of local anti-discrimination laws. I agree that it’s a stupid reason to deny anyone membership, but it definitely isn’t unconstitutional.