Prominent Chicago Religious Leaders Ask Federal Appellate Court to Protect Government Neutrality in Religion and End Pentagon's Extraordinary Funding for Boy Scout Jamboree

Affiliate: ACLU of Illinois
April 5, 2006 12:00 am

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CHICAGO – Two well-known Chicago religious leaders have asked a federal appellate court in Chicago to uphold the basic constitutional principle of government neutrality between religious groups and secular groups and bar the Pentagon from the extraordinary spending of millions of dollars to support future Boy Scout Jamborees (the only youth organization event so funded by the Pentagon). The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit is hearing arguments on Thursday April 6 in Winkler v. Rumsfeld, a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

Last year a federal district court judge in Chicago found that the Pentagon’s special expenditure of more than $7 million for each Jamboree violated the principle of government neutrality in religion and ordered the funding stopped. The appellate court argument is the most recent action in the case brought by the ACLU of Illinois on behalf of religious and community leaders from Chicago alarmed at the favored treatment afforded by the Pentagon to the Boy Scouts of America, despite the BSA’s religious requirements for participation.

“Government neutrality in religious activities is a fundamental constitutional value embraced by most Americans,” said lead plaintiff Eugene Winkler, 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 more than $29 million by the Pentagon for an organization that requires young people to believe in God – and the simultaneous exclusion of secular organizations from this benefit — undermines that principle of neutrality. We trust the appeals court will uphold the decision below.”

Two lead plaintiffs in the case filed in 1999, Winkler and Rabbi Gary Gerson, said they hoped the appeals court would uphold the judge’s order that helps maintain the critical constitutional principle of government neutrality towards religion. The Boy Scouts of America, a private organization, requires youth who participate in their activities to believe in God. Indeed, the BSA expels youth who do not. Yet Congress and the Pentagon provide the Boy Scouts with a unique and lucrative benefit, funding of more than $29 million over the past two decades. No other youth organization competes for this generous federal benefit.

Pentagon support for the quadrennial Jamboree extends far beyond providing a venue for the event. Indeed, evidence in the case demonstrated that the Pentagon’s expenditure on behalf of the Jamboree serves no military purpose; rather, the funding is simply expended to support the BSA’s efforts to provide a quality camping experience for their members. As an example, the Pentagon once spent a half million dollars for temporary workers to erect and break down tents. Other goods purchased by the Pentagon for the participants at the Jamboree include pediatric medical supplies, commercial vehicles and cookie dough. The Pentagon also spent $65,000 for commemorative mementos to mark the Jamboree.

According to the religious leaders who brought the case, the extraordinary aid provided to the Jamboree is particularly alarming because of the BSA’s exclusions of non-believers. Before a young man can join the Scouts, tie a knot or pitch a tent, they are required to swear an oath of “duty to God.” If the youth refuses to sign the oath, they are not admitted into the Scouts. Moreover, the BSA describes itself as a religious group, is effectively controlled by religious organizations, has religious requirements for youth to advance in the ranks and engages in a host of other religious practices. The evidence in the case also demonstrated that the Jamboree is explicitly religious. Troop leaders, for example, 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.

Reviewing these facts in the district court, Judge Blanche Manning of Chicago 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.”

“The BSA – by its own admission – is a religious organization,” added Winkler. “The federal government’ simply cannot give special treatment to a private group that excludes young men who do not profess a particular religious faith.”

The lawsuit was filed in 1999. At earlier stages of the case, the Chicago Public Schools and the Pentagon 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.

Charles Peters, David Scott, Kevin F. Feeney and David Sattelberger of the Schiff Hardin law firm are co-counsel along with ACLU of Illinois attorneys Adam Schwartz and Harvey Grossman in representing Reverend Winkler and Rabbi Gerson and the other plaintiffs.

A copy of the ACLU of Illinois brief in Winkler v. Rumsfeld is available at:

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