Pentagon Agrees to End Direct Sponsorship of Boy Scout Troops in Response to Religious Discrimination Charge

Affiliate: ACLU of Illinois
November 15, 2004 12:00 am

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CHICAGO – In response to a religious discrimination lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, the Defense Department today agreed to end direct sponsorship of hundreds of Boy Scout units, which require members to swear religious oaths, on military facilities across the United States and overseas.

“If our Constitution’s promise of religious liberty is to be a reality, the government should not be administering religious oaths or discriminating based upon religious beliefs,” said Adam Schwartz of the ACLU of Illinois. “This agreement removes the Pentagon from direct sponsorship of Scout troops that engage in religious discrimination.”

Previously, Defense Department units held charters to lead hundreds of Boy Scout troops and Cub Scout packs, which exclude youths who do not believe in God. Additionally, the Boy Scouts of America requires troop and pack leaders, in this case government employees, to compel youth to swear an oath of duty to God. The ACLU of Illinois charged that the Boy Scouts’ policy violates the religious liberty of youth who wish to participate but do not wish to swear a religious oath, and that direct government sponsorship of such a program is religious discrimination.

Today’s settlement addresses a major portion of a lawsuit first filed in 1999. In that lawsuit, the ACLU of Illinois challenged the use of public funds by the Chicago Public Schools, the Defense Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to support Boy Scout troops. The Chicago Public Schools previously entered into a settlement agreeing to stop their direct sponsorship of Boy Scout troops.

Under the terms of today’s settlement, the Defense Department has 60 days to issue a statement to U.S. defense facilities and military bases across the world making clear that Defense officials may not sponsor Boy Scout organizations. The settlement, however, does not prohibit off-duty government employees from sponsoring Boy Scout troops on their own time. The Boy Scouts will still also have access to any military facilities that are currently made available to other non-governmental organizations.

“It is critical that the Pentagon send this very clear signal to its units across the globe to ensure that government officials are not engaged in religious discrimination in their official capacity,” said Charles Peters of the Chicago law firm Schiff Hardin who assisted the ACLU of Illinois in the lawsuit.

The federal court in Chicago still must decide whether the Defense Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development can spend millions of taxpayer dollars to support Boy Scout units that practice religious discrimination and require religious oaths. The ACLU of Illinois has raised concern, for example, about the Pentagon’s handpicking the Boy Scouts of America – and no other organization – for the expenditure of an average of $2 million each year to support the national Boy Scout Jamboree. A decision on this and other issues is pending.

The agreement was presented to U.S. District Court Judge Blanche Manning. In addition to Peters, Laura Friedel and David Scott of Schiff Hardin are also assisting the ACLU of Illinois in the case.

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