Prominent Chicago Religious Leaders Applaud Court Order Ending Pentagon's Special Funding for Boy Scout Jamboree

Affiliate: ACLU of Illinois
July 7, 2005 12:00 am

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CHICAGO — Two well-known Chicago religious leaders today hailed an injunction by U.S. District Court Judge Blanche Manning that bars the Pentagon from spending millions of dollars to support future Boy Scout Jamborees (the only youth organization event so funded by the Pentagon).

The judge’s decision is the most recent action in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois on behalf of religious and community leaders from Chicago who were alarmed at the favored treatment afforded by several governmental entities to the Boy Scouts of America, despite the BSA’s religious requirements for participation. The injunction does not cover the Jamboree already scheduled for this summer.

Two lead plaintiffs in the case filed in 1999, Reverend Eugene Winkler and Rabbi Gary Gerson, stated today that the judge’s order helps maintain the critical constitutional principle of government neutrality towards religion.

“Government has an obligation to be neutral in religious activities,” said Rev. Winkler, a former pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Chicago. “Government must be neutral because we are a nation of many religious views — as well as those who do not practice a religion. The expenditure of $8 million by the Pentagon for an organization that requires young people to affirm a belief in God — and the simultaneous exclusion of secular organizations from this benefit — undermines that principle of neutrality. Judge Manning recognized this fact and took appropriate action.”

The Boy Scouts of America, a private organization, require youth who participate in their activities to affirm a belief in God and expels youth who decline to do so. Yet Congress and the Pentagon have chosen to provide the Boy Scouts — and no other youth organization – with a unique and lucrative benefit which, for this summer’s Jamboree, amounts to $8 million in federal spending to assist the Boy Scouts in providing a summer camp experience for its youth. No other youth organization is allowed to compete for this generous federal benefit, the ACLU noted.

The injunction follows a March 16, 2005 decision by Judge Manning ruling that the Department of Defense’s special treatment of the Boy Scouts violates the Constitution’s requirement of governmental neutrality towards religious activity. The religious leaders who brought the case applauded the decision.

Pentagon support for the quadrennial Jamboree extends far beyond simply providing a venue for the event. Indeed, evidence in the case demonstrated that the Pentagon’s $8 million expenditure included a half-million dollars for temporary workers to erect and break down tents and $65,000 for commemorative mementos to mark the Jamboree.

The direct funding provided to the Jamboree — at levels offered to no other youth group — is particularly alarming not only because of the BSA’s exclusions of non-believers but also because of the explicitly religious aspects of the Jamboree, the ACLU said. Troop leaders are issued a guidebook by the Boy Scouts of America indicating that a prayer book is “required personal camping equipment” for all youth attendees. The BSA also issues a “Duty to God” booklet for each participant that recommends prayers for each day of the Jamboree.

Most important, however, is the exclusion of non-believers from this government-funded event. Because of this, Judge Manning found, the statute that provides special treatment and special funding for the Boy Scouts Jamboree is not neutral with regards to religion. The Judge’s decision reasoned that the government aid was “not offered to a broad range of groups; rather, it is specifically targeted toward the Boy Scouts, which?is a religious organization from which agnostics and atheists are excluded.”

“This is not an attack on the Boy Scouts,” said Rabbi Gerson of Oak Park Temple. “Rather, it is a challenge to the federal government’s preferential treatment of a religious organization. Government simply cannot give special treatment to a private group that excludes young men who do not profess a particular religious faith.”

The decision resolves one more element of a lawsuit first filed in 1999. The ACLU of Illinois, acting on behalf of Reverend Winkler, Rabbi Gerson and others, challenged the use of public funds by the Chicago Public Schools, the Department of Defense and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to support Boy Scout troops.

The Chicago Public Schools and the Pentagon previously entered into settlements agreeing to stop their direct sponsorship of Boy Scout troops. Boy Scouts can still meet on military bases, and military personnel can still participate in Scout activities on their own time. The Pentagon settlement came after lawyers from the ACLU of Illinois argued that the Pentagon’s direct sponsorship of BSA troops meant that government personnel — acting in their official capacity — were requiring young people to affirm a belief in God in order to participate in a government-sponsored activity.

Charles Peters, Laura Friedel and David Scott of the Schiff Hardin law firm are co-counsel along with ACLU of Illinois attorney Adam Schwartz in representing Reverend Winkler and Rabbi Gerson.

The court’s ruling is online at: /node/35510.

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