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Boy Scouts embroiled in religious liberty case
Scripps Howard News Service


July 26, 2005

Fort A.P. Hill - home of the Boy Scout Jamboree and scene of tragedy Monday with the accidental deaths of four adult leaders - is also the site of the latest skirmish in what some call America's religious war.

Scheduled to give a speech to the 40,000 Scouts, leaders and parents assembled there, President Bush will symbolically stride Wednesday night into the battle at the Virginia military installation.

Flanking him will be Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a former Scout who led his fellow lawmakers Tuesday to unanimously back the Boy Scouts with a "Support Our Scouts" act endorsing the youth group's use of U.S. military bases.

They both stand with the Boy Scouts of America, who for 24 years have held the quadrennial event at the Army installation in Virginia, with the blessings of the Pentagon and at least $20 million of taxpayers' money. The Scouts contend the relationship benefits America's military as well as the scouts.

Opposing them is the American Civil Liberties Union, which argues that the Boy Scouts have an unconstitutional deal with the Defense Department, largely because the private youth group requires all Scouts to swear a belief in, and a duty to, God.

Last month, a federal judge in northern Illinois agreed with the ACLU that such a restriction amounts to religious discrimination. The judge issued an injunction against Pentagon funding of future Jamborees. The June 22 order, which stemmed from an ACLU lawsuit filed in 1999, does not affect this year's event, which runs through Aug. 3.

While no decision has been announced, the Bush administration is expected to appeal the ruling of U.S. District Court Judge Blanche Manning in Illinois, said Robert Bork, a spokesman for the Boy Scouts.

"I am confident there will be an appeal," Bork said.

Bork argues that the Scouts have given back at least as much as they have gained from the military's support of the Jamboree, at which scouts engage in an array of activities, from fellowship campfires to pioneering, fishing, mountain boarding and archery.

The Scouts have spent more than $20 million in improvements to the Army installation over the years, upgrading the plumbing and electrical system, paving roads on the 76,000-acre base, and installing concrete pads for heavy equipment, two climbing walls and campsites that soldiers there use.

On top of that, the Army has long viewed the event as a beneficial training exercise in which troops hone skills in controlling crowds, communications, logistics, medical care and security, according to the service.

"One could argue we are subsidizing military training," Bork said.

But the ACLU argues that it is the taxpayer who is subsidizing a private event that is religiously discriminatory. For this year's gathering, the Pentagon will pay about $7 million, according to the ACLU suit.

Adam Schwartz, a senior ACLU staff attorney in Chicago and former Eagle Scout, said the Scouts have received favored treatment and a substantial financial benefit from the government that no other secular youth group gets. This violates the Constitution's requirement that the government be neutral toward religious activity, he said.

The fact that the Scouts forbid atheists or agnostics from becoming members means that the government is essentially giving special treatment to a private group that violates the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion, Schwartz said.

"Government cannot give special treatment to a private group if it excludes those who do not profess a particular religious faith," Schwartz said.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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