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Issue 380 – January 15, 2014

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Dear Andy,

I’m a Scoutmaster and find myself with a bit of a dilemma between a Scout and a small group of irate parents. This Scout is presently Life rank. He’s just about completed all requirements for the Eagle Scout rank. My observations tell me that he’s an exceptional Scout. He’s truly living the Scout Oath and Law in his daily life and has been one of the best Senior Patrol Leaders I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. In addition to being an active Scout, he’s very active in his church and has, in fact, served as our troop’s Chaplain Aide prior to being elected Senior Patrol Leader. He’s a bright, thoughtful, and passionate young man, and is set to graduate from high school shortly with high honors. His “life plan” is to become a lawyer and then fulfill his duty to his country by ultimately becoming a judge. To begin this pathway, he’s just been accepted into a great pre-law program at an excellent university.

However, there’s a glitch. Some members of our troop committee want to see this young man not only removed from his position as Senior Patrol Leader but denied Eagle Scout rank as well. Two of these have even called for removing him from the troop and Scouting altogether.

The impetus for this is that this Scout does not say the words “under God” when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. When it’s recited at troop meetings (and each day at school) he will recite the Pledge along with everyone else, but, when it reaches the “…one nation under God…” part he pauses and does not voice the words “under God.” (Following those two words, he continues right along with everyone else.) Importantly, as far as I’m concerned, as his Scoutmaster (and mentor), he doesn’t make a big stink (or even a small fuss) about this, and is consistently respectful of those who do recite the full Pledge. (In fact, had it not been pointed out that his lips weren’t moving on those two words, I never would have even noticed!)

In speaking with him about this, he has expressed the opinion that the words “under God” carry an implication of a union between “church” and “state.”

If this were all that’s occurred, it might be a tiny matter, not worth any further conversation. But, as it turns out, this isn’t the end of the story. Recently, his high school’s newspaper carried an opinion piece he’d written about the inclusion of the words “under God” and how they should be removed from the Pledge because they, in his opinion, violate the separation of church and state, and that the reference to God (which was added to the Pledge in the 1950s) should not be in a public oath of our country. Apparently, the parents of some of his peers in the troop saw this piece when their own sons brought the newspaper home, and thus this borderline firestorm.

In conferences with this Scout, I have no doubt in my mind that he personally believes in God. As I mentioned, he’s actively involved with his church. Moreover, he has no problem saying the words “duty to God” in the Scout Oath or leading mealtime graces on troop camp-outs or benedictions at our troop’s courts of honor. His only disagreement is not related to Scouting at all; it’s simply with those two words in the Pledge of Allegiance.

But, among a vocal segment of the troop committee (and a few parents as well), this Scout’s actions are seen as some sort of heresy. On top of this, we have a few military families who are having conniptions! These people have taken the position that if this Scout won’t recite the full Pledge, as prescribed by Congress, then he’s not “living the values of Scouting.” They reference the BSA’s Declaration of Religious Principle and throw around phrases like “Duty to country,” “Duty to God,” “Reverent,” “Loyal,” “Obedient,” and so forth, and hard at work constructing all sorts of roadblocks to this Scout’s trail to Eagle. Some have even gone so far as to state that we should not re-register anyone who is—as they’ve labeled this Scout—“unpatriotic” and “nonreligious.”

I’ve sought advice about this situation from our Unit Commissioner. His response was: “Well, why can’t the kid just say the words to shut these parents up?”

This response strikes me as either missing the point or ducking the issue—neither of which is any help to me. This is why I’m turning to you. Can you help? What should I do? Are these committee members and parent correct? Do I have to tell this young man that he’s violating his Scouting obligations by refusing to say “under God” while reciting the Pledge, and that he must change his ways or leave Scouting? Do I tell him his lack of “patriotism” and lack of “faith” makes him ineligible to become an Eagle Scout? Should I tell this young man to compromise his principles and just say the words to appease these people? Or is this Scout doing nothing wrong and I should just tell these others who’d damn him—in a Scout-like way, of course—to blow it out their ears? How would I do that? Can the Committee Chair and Chartered Organization Representative really revoke membership or withhold rank advancement based on a Scout not saying the full Pledge of Allegiance? How should I proceed? (Name & Council Withheld)

I definitely understand and appreciate your situation, as well as this Scout’s, and the troop committee members and parents. I believe we have three interlaced issues here. I’m going to attempt to identify them and provide courses of action for each.

First, for the Scout…

He is quite obviously living his life according to the tenets of the Scout Oath. In fact, he seems to be doing so at a high level. As you’ve pointed out, he’s in process of completing all stated requirements for all ranks through and including those of Eagle Scout. This includes five prior boards of review: Tenderfoot through Life rank, all of which have been successful—something the troop committee needs to take into consideration. Moreover, he’s practicing the principles expressed in the Scout Law as well, including “Obedient” in particular.

“Obedient” states: “A Scout follows the rules of his family, school, and troop. He obeys the laws of his community and country. If he thinks these rules and laws are unfair, he seeks to have them changed in an orderly way.”

This Scout believes that “…under God…” as contained in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of our country augurs for an alliance of “church and state,” and he has stated his case in an appropriate medium and in an orderly, non-inflammatory way. Whether we agree with his position or not, he should be credited—not chastised or punished—for expressing himself in the manner he’s chosen. Further, he demonstrates an understanding that the Supreme Court of the United States has declared the recitation of the Pledge to be voluntary; not mandatory—something the troop committee and some parents have apparently overlooked or are ignorant of. Thus, by simply remaining silent as others speak the words “under God” he is exercising his First Amendment right of free speech in as gentlemanly and Scout-like manner as is possible. (Admirably and specifically, as you’ve pointed out, he has no reluctance whatsoever to recite the entire Scout Oath including “…do my duty to God and my country…” or the other 29 words of the Pledge of Allegiance.)

Therefore, as long as he’s prepared (as he quite obviously is) to respond in the affirmative to the question, “Do you believe in God?”—a question that actually is rather inappropriate if not insulting in light of his ongoing adherence to the entire Scout Oath as well as his church activities and having served as the troop’s Chaplain Aide—he has most definitely fulfilled Scouting’s expectations in the area of belief.

It strikes me, therefore, that this Scout should by all means continue in Scouting, including Eagle and well beyond that rank.

Moving on, let’s consider the members of the troop committee, and some parents, who believe something’s amiss here, and that this Scout shouldn’t be a member of the troop or the BSA, or become an Eagle Scout…

I would caution them in their use of inappropriate language describing this Scout. First, this Scout is violating no law, rule, mandate, or even principle. It is obvious by both his behavior and his attitude that he is neither “unpatriotic,” nor “nonreligious,” nor anything else of the sort. His action in writing an opinion piece for publication is admirable, in fact. It demonstrates not only his right as an individual to express himself publicly, but it confirms that Scouting has helped influence his life as a conscientious, thoughtful citizen. The fact that his school’s newspaper published it—and by so doing vetted it—is a further indication of the acceptability of free expression when logically presented in a non-incendiary manner. I urge these misguided people to re-read what the Scout wrote, because it did not deny God at all, nor did it deny one’s obligation to one’s country. It put forth the proposition that, in the USA, “church” and “state” must remain separate—a founding principle of this country that can be traced back to our beginning 237 years ago.

Further, these committee members do not represent themselves or the troop as a whole well when they use such characterizations toward anyone—most especially a Scout who gives every appearance of being exemplary and more. Fact is, they’re simply wrong. In accusing this Scout of “not reciting the Pledge in its entirety” they’re technically accurate but have lost sight of the larger issue: Reciting the Pledge is a voluntary act that cannot (and should not) be made mandatory. Plus, they’re forgetting that the Scout Oath, which is indeed expected, is not at issue at all, as neither is the Scout Law.

It should be pointed out that the chair of the committee does have the right to refuse signing this Scout’s Eagle Scout Rank Application. This withholding, however, will not prevent this Scout from exercising his right to a board of review (see Guide to Advancement-“Board of review under disputed circumstances”). Should this alternate route be forced on this Scout, he will have his board of review, it will be successful, and the only results with be that (1) this will have left an unpleasant mark in this Scout’s memory of his troop experience and (2) the committee and its chair will have embarrassed themselves and the troop in the eyes of all involved, including those at the chartered organization, district, and council levels. Consequently, I urge the committee to reexamine their stance on this matter and not force this door to be opened.

I also suggest that the committee consider this: Depending on how your council conducts Eagle boards of review, one or more of you might be present. Whoever that is, it had better be with “clean hands.” If any committee member can’t be at the very least neutral on this issue, he or she is obligated to recuse participation.

As for removal from his elected position of Senior Patrol Leader or outright dismissal from the troop, I urge extreme caution: This is news media fodder that will explode in their faces should they attempt it. It will explode because the premise for removal and dismissal is demonstrably wrong, and wrong-headed as well.

As for the Unit Commissioner whose only guidance was that “the kid just say the words,” I’m obliged to believe he has the backbone of a chocolate éclair and needs counseling in order to be considered fit to serve further in this capacity.

As for you and your role as Scoutmaster, your fundamental belief that certain committee members and parents are a bit off the mark, and that this Scout is worthy of the Eagle rank, is accurate. Since you, as Scoutmaster, are the front-line advocate for this Scout, stand strong. Defend your Scout. Call for a board of review under disputed circumstances if necessary and, regardless of whether or not this situation calls for this or a “normal” board of review, be prepared to sit in on the review (the BSA permits Scoutmasters to do this, so don’t let anyone tell you that you must stay out of the room) as an observer and—if necessary—advocate.

Andy

Have a question? Facing a dilemma? Wondering where to find a BSA policy or guideline? Write to askandybsa@yahoo.com. Please include your name and council. (If you’d prefer to be anonymous, if published, let me know and that’s what we’ll do.)

[No. 380 – 1/15/2014 – Copyright © Andy McCommish 2014]

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About AskAndy

Andy is a Board Member of the U.S. Scouting Service Project, Inc.

Andy is currently serving as a Unit Commissioner. He has previously served in a number of Scouting roles including Assistant Council Commissioner, Cubmaster, Scoutmaster, Den Leader, and Senior Patrol Leader as youth member. His awards include: Distinguished Commissioner, Doctor of Commissioner Science, International Scouter Award, District Award of Merit (2), Scoutmaster Award of Merit, Scouter's Key (3), Daniel Carter Beard & Cliff Dochterman Awards, James E. West Fellow (2), Wood Badge & Sea Badge, and Eagle Scout & Explorer Silver Award.

Read Andy's full biography

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