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Scout's honor

Boy Scouts | Despite legal challenges and controversy, Boy Scouts turns 100

Issue: "Your right to vote," July 31, 2010

In northern New Mexico, the Boy Scouts of America owns the largest youth camp in the world. Philmont Scout Ranch covers 137,000 acres in the Sangre de Cristo-the "blood of Christ"-Mountains. Every day this summer, approximately 300 Scouts, Explorers, and their leaders will arrive at Philmont. A total of more than 18,000 will complete a 12-day Philmont trek this summer, hiking at least 50 miles over mountains that reach up to 12,000 feet.

And there are that many more on a waiting list. It has been that way for 10 years. "We've never been stronger," said Philmont's Director of Program Mark Anderson.

Many organizations that celebrate "duty to God and country"-words from the Scout oath-have either fallen on hard times or have abandoned such values. The Girl Scouts, for example, no longer requires members to believe in God, and it allows openly gay leaders.

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The Boy Scouts, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year, is holding firm. Atheists have sued the Scouts so they can be members without having to pledge duty to God, but the Scouts have defended themselves vigorously-and successfully-in the courts. In the 1990s, James Dale, an openly gay man, wanted to be a Scout leader and sued for the privilege. The case went to the Supreme Court in 2000. The Boy Scouts won-but barely, in a 5-4 decision.

Though the Scouts have won virtually every case brought against them by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others, these battles have not been without costs, which over several decades have amounted to tens of millions of dollars in legal fees. Robert Knight is an Eagle Scout, a senior writer with Coral Ridge Ministries, and a senior fellow with the American Civil Rights Union (ACRU), a group that considers itself the conservative counterweight to the ACLU. The ACRU filed amicus briefs in several cases the ACLU has brought against the Scouts. Knight said, "The ACLU is trying to peck the Scouts to death, and even when they don't win, they generate controversy and they intimidate." Knight said that in some parts of the country the United Way no longer funds the Boy Scouts because of the controversy generated by lawsuits.

But the controversies have earned the Boy Scouts the admiration of social conservatives and many others because, Knight said, "The Boy Scouts make it clear where moral authority comes from. From God. That's controversial today, but most Americans still believe it's true."

That said, Scouting is pluralistic in the way that America is pluralistic. Tenderfoot Scouts must know the Scout Oath, which begins, "On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country." So every Scout must believe in God-or at least say he does. But Scouting is not particular about which god. Indeed, the strongest religious influence in the Scouting Movement today comes from the Mormons-the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Mormons have used Scouting as one of their official programs for youth since 1913, and almost 25 percent of all Boy Scouts are Mormon. (Only about 2 percent of the U.S. population is Mormon.)

Other youth organizations-and even many churches-say they must abandon traditional ways in order to remain relevant. However, the Scouts' adherence to traditional values-and traditional activities such as camping, hiking, and canoeing-seems to be serving them well. Indeed, the Scouts tried seeking "relevance" in the '70s, with near-disastrous results. A '70s-era version of the Scout Handbook focused on urban survival skills, such as how to read a bus schedule. As it turns out, most youth already know that. They want to know how to pitch a tent.

That doesn't mean the Scouts are not adjusting. Recently added merit badges include "Geo-caching" and "Invention," which teaches innovation and entrepreneurship. Larry Pritchard, the director of this year's National Scout Jamboree, which takes place every four years, said this year's event will feature a Wi-Fi cloud over the entire jamboree location, and 40 exhibitors-including NASA and the National Geographic Society-related to science and technology.

These adjustments are necessary, said Alvin Townley, if Scouting is to have a second century as great as its first. Townley has written two influential books in praise of Scouting. Townley said, "If we want a great next 100 years, we'll have to overcome some significant challenges. That doesn't mean abandoning our bedrock values, but it does mean getting smarter about how we communicate them to youth. Conservation, stewardship, adventure, entrepreneurship, leadership. Young people resonate with these ideas, and these ideas have always been what Scouting is all about. But we've got to sharpen our brand so that people understand that."

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