I had mixed feelings when I learned that the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) had signed a memorandum of understanding with the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) in late March. Unitarian Universalists are leaders in the quest for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) justice. The UUA opposed the BSA’s ban on openly gay members, which led to the dissolution of the relationship between the two organizations in the late 1990s. When the BSA dropped its ban on gay adult leaders in July 2015, two years after doing the same for gay youth, it opened the door for the formation of more inclusive troops. However, the BSA still bans atheist, agnostic, and humanist scouts and leaders. In fact, its Declaration of Religious Principle clearly states, “The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe and the grateful acknowledgment of His favors and blessings are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing members.” There was no mention in the memorandum signed by the UUA of a more accepting attitude for atheist, agnostic, or humanist youth and leaders in the BSA.
I contacted UUA President Peter Morales and asked him why. “Let me say, as a humanist, I had my own trepidation about a new agreement with the Boy Scouts,” he responded. “However, through many conversations, I was assured that a UU congregation who hosts a scouting unit would be able to teach our values according to our UU theology—including nontheistic teachings.” He went on to write:
We do think this is an important first step in creating change from within. Zach Wahls, co-founder of Scouts for Equality, a UU Scout and Eagle Scout, counseled us that the BSA is much more likely to make policy changes when addressing their own constituencies and chartering organizations. As he said in UU World, “When you have the UUA, the UCC, and public schools at the table, it helps the Scouts see that if they decide to change their membership policies and include nontheists, it makes it much easier….” I believe that UU congregations that choose to host scouting units have an opportunity to model what an inclusive and welcoming unit can look like—including those who do not believe in God. And for those who decide that scouting isn’t right for their congregation, there are great alternatives like Navigators. We have heard from many UU Scouts and Scouting families who don’t believe in God that they were accepted despite BSA national policies. We have also heard from UUs who wanted to participate in scouting but weren’t allowed to within the UU congregation and therefore participated in scouting at a non-UU church.
Morales acknowledged that the issue is complex and that while the agreement isn’t a perfect solution, he sees it as a strategic decision that “can put us on a path to change.”
Though this situation is far from satisfying for me and other nontheists, it’s surely a beginning. The struggle for more reality-based approaches in our institutions and society is a never-ending one. I and other UU humanists are determined to engage the BSA and the UUA at both the institutional and the congregational levels to ensure that atheist, agnostic, and humanist youth and leaders are accepted in every BSA troop associated with Unitarian Universalism and, eventually, in all BSA troops. If both religious and secular members of the American Humanist Association join us in making this happen, the Boy Scouts of America will have no choice but to recognize that building strong moral character and achievement doesn’t require a supernatural component.