It is the largest uniformed force in the nation, and in some ways the most exclusive. You can be female and a soldier in the United States Army; you can be an atheist and a police officer; you can be a homosexual and an Episcopal priest. But can't be any of those things and be a Boy Scout.
At least, not yet. These are times of turmoil for the Boy Scout of America, as the unwelcome forces of liberalization let loose in the 1970s are knocking at the door with growing insistence. Michael and William Randall, 9-year-old twins from Anaheim Hills, Calif., who were asked to leave their Cub Scout pack earlier this year for refusing to invoke God in their oath ("I [name], promise to do my best to do my duty to God and my country..."), are suing to win reinstatement. Just last week a U.S. district court in Chicago set a trial date for a suit by 8-year-old Mark Welsh, who is seeking to set aside the requirement for a "declaration of religious principle" from Scout families. "I was in Scouts for seven years and it never entered my mind that they could exclude people," said Welsh's father, Elliot, who in 1970 himself fought to the Supreme Court for the right to call himself a nonreligious conscientious objector. (He won.) "Scouts taught me about tolerance in the first place."
Predictably, the American Civil Liberties Union is in the forefront of the assault on the Scouts' right to set their own standards of admission. Local affiliates of the ACLU have agreed to represent the Randall twins and are considering bringing a case on behalf of five girls from Quincy, Calif., who sought to join a Cub Scout pack. Culminating a 10-year struggle, civil-liberties lawyers have gone to trial in the case of Tim Curran, a former Eagle Scout from Berkeley, who says he was told he couldn't be a troop leader because he was a homosexual. Last fall a California judge rejected the Boy Scouts' claims to be a private club exempt from state anti-discrimination laws.
In each case, the Boy Scouts respond that admitting girls, atheists or homosexuals would undermine their purposes. Although the Scouts have weathered several nasty scandals involving scoutmasters who abused their charges, Scout spokesman Blake Lewis denies that the fear of molestation is behind the ban on gay scoutmasters. Homosexuals, he says, are "frankly not the traditional male role model we are looking for." With respect to admitting girls, Donald York, a regional Scout executive based in Reno, Nev., points out that "most psychologists tell us that boys of scouting age (6 to 13) prefer to associate with other boys." And as for boys who do not believe in God, or America, or any of the other values enshrined in the Scouts' credo, Lewis observes that "if you start allowing people to choose the rules they want to obey, you start becoming a faceless, valueless organization." which suggests that the real issue is what the Boy Scouts really are; uniformed forces for moral uplift, or, and the Randall twins' father, James, puts it: "This fun organization where you went camping and had a good time."