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Off-base attack

Law | Pentagon-ACLU clash disguises ploy to throw Boy Scouts to the boneyard

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 2004," Dec. 11, 2004

As usual, Cub Scout Pack 301 met at North Carolina's Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station on Thursday before Thanksgiving. Cubmaster Sean Moore saw the chaos brought about by a large gathering of elementary-aged boys. The American Civil Liberties Union saw a constitutional violation.

Pack 301, which has met at Cherry Point MCAS for nearly 50 years, is one of 400 Boy Scout troops and Cub Scout packs that will be looking for new charters after the ACLU arm-twisted the Defense Department to sever sponsorship ties with the Boy Scouts last month. Sgt. Moore, who is also a Marine stationed at Cherry Point, says the pack won't miss any meetings. Pack 301's Cubs can relax, too. The big camping trip in April with all the area Cub Scouts is still on, said Sgt. Moore: "We'll get between 600 to 1,000 kids and their families. We'll have a big time." Despite ACLU meddling.

The Department of Defense already had banned the sponsorship of nongovernmental organizations. For years, however, about 400 Boy Scout troops and Cub Scout packs quietly continued the tradition. That is, until the ACLU stepped in with legal action. Spinning off of a 1998 lawsuit in Illinois, it challenged the Department of Defense, claiming that sponsorship of Scout troops violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

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The Pentagon retreated, sending a memo telling military bases and units to cut direct ties with scouting programs. Meanwhile, the Pentagon plans to fight the ACLU in Illinois federal court to retain the Boy Scout Jamboree, held for the last 24 years at Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia.

Officials with the Boy Scouts of America say the Pentagon's out-of-court capitulation on troop sponsorships won't disrupt ongoing activities like meetings or campouts. But the legal squabble, they believe, reveals the ACLU's true motive: to target scouting programs for extinction. "They're like a dog with a bone," said Bob Bork, a Boy Scouts of America spokesman. "They've been gnawing on us for 30 years now. It isn't cheap-our lawyers aren't working pro bono." The nickel-and-dime litigation can add up. For every dollar spent defending the organization from the ACLU's legal assaults, scouting programs lose out on possible funding.

ACLU spokesman Ed Yohnka, meanwhile, said the outcome demonstrates the group's case against the government was legitimate: "Obviously by [the Pentagon's] actions, this was not a policy they wanted to defend." And for good reason, Mr. Yohnka said. Each of the nearly 120,000 Boy Scouts of America troops and packs is owned by a chartering organization-often a church or civic group. Private organizations chartering private organizations are one thing, the ACLU contended. But public institutions like military bases and public schools violate ACLU-and current liberal court-interpretations of the First Amendment when they charter Boy Scout troops, which deny membership to avowed atheists and homosexuals.

"These are the rules we've all agreed to play by," Mr. Yohnka contends. "If we don't hold our federal government to those standards, we do a disservice to our Constitution."

The ACLU may tote up a victory, but for the Boy Scouts, so far, nothing has really changed. Nationwide, only one-third of 1 percent of Boy Scout programs will be affected. And groups chartered to military bases, like Pack 301, can easily switch their charter. "There shouldn't even be much paperwork," Sgt. Moore said. His Pack 301 will be allowed to continue to meet in a special building that is open to civilian use at Cherry Point. Troops won't be forced off military bases for meetings or camping trips either.

The Pentagon's decision may actually work to the Scouts' benefit because of the subsequent outrage. The long-term presence of Scout troops on bases is a rare mainstay in the transient world of military personnel, their families, and the local community. Mr. Bork said his Boy Scout office had several calls from Pentagon insiders expressing dismay at the official decision. "We've got retired duty and active duty military personnel who feel like they've been robbed of their packs and troops. They're very mad and they're telling us about it."

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