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Gay/Atheist Controversy Strikes Scouting: Guide to Finding a Group that Matches Your Views

   May 01, 2013
One of the truly beautiful aspects of the nonprofit sector is its diversity. The plethora of groups allows for just about everyone to find a group to donate to, participate in, or even lead, that fits their highest values and ideals.

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) has come under increasing fire for its ban on gay scouts and scout leaders. Many parties have urged the organization to revise its policies on discrimination based on sexual orientation, including President Barack Obama and former BSA executive board member Mitt Romney. In early February, after publicly announcing that BSA was considering an end to the national ban to instead allow local groups to decide their own discrimination policies, the Boy Scouts elected to postpone a decision on the matter until May of 2013.

Some have also taken issue with the BSA's position that atheists and agnostics are not allowed to participate either as scouts or scout leaders. While this position would not be acceptable at most secular groups, it is the strong preference of numerous BSA chapters. This is because BSA chapters are primarily run by religious groups or churches which also may not permit non-believers to join their chapters. As The New York Times recently reported, almost 70% of local BSA chapters are chartered to faith-based organizations, and over one-third of scouts are involved in groups backed by the Mormon Church, Roman Catholic Church, or United Methodist Church.

Whichever policy position the BSA ultimately decides to take, it is useful to know that a wide variety of youth programs are available to families with differing views on these controversial issues. In order to help you select an organization that aligns with your personal values, CharityWatch provides you with the following guide to the varying non-discrimination policies of the following youth services groups.

(Note: CharityWatch rates the financial efficiency of many of these major youth development groups but does not factor policies on gender, sexual orientation or religion into our ratings.)

Secular Organizations

Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America (BBBS) is a mentoring organization which pairs adults with at-risk children in a long-term, one-on-one relationship. According to an email from BBBS's VP of Communications, when approving adult volunteers, BBBS does not discriminate against individuals based on sexual orientation, religion or marital status. However, "with each mentoring match, [BBBS] respect[s] parents' preferences."

Boys and Girls Clubs of America (BGC) is an organization that operates local community centers as safe spaces for young people to spend time outside of school. According to an email from the BGC Senior VP and General Counsel, "Boys & Girls Clubs of America welcomes all kids and teens who wish to join their local Club." In addition, the BGC is an equal opportunity employer that does not discriminate "on any basis," including religion, sex, marital status, or sexual orientation.

However, the Boys & Girls Club Code, which is posted at many of the local Clubs, begins with "I believe in God and the right to worship according to my own faith and religion." Though no specific religion is named, this statement might discourage agnostics or atheists from membership.

Camp Fire USA operates a number of youth-oriented services, including summer camps, teen leadership training, and before and after school programs. The Policy on Inclusion on Camp Fire's website states that "Camp Fire works to realize the dignity and worth of each individual" and that "program standards are designed and implemented to reduce sexual, racial, and cultural stereotypes and to foster positive intercultural relationships."

The Fresh Air Fund provides a summer camp experience for low-income boys and girls from New York. Its universal non-discrimination policy states that the group does not discriminate against participants or employees on the basis of religious affiliation, gender, or sexual orientation.

Girl Scouts of the USA describes itself on its website as secular, with diversity as a "core value" and "critical component" of the organization. It should be noted that the Girl Scout Promise includes a promise "to serve God," that Girl Scouts encourages girls to take "spiritual journeys" in conjunction with adults from religious organizations, and that Girl Scouts can earn a special "My Promise, My Faith" pin for undertaking a project linking their religious community to the Scouts.

Girls Inc. provides mentoring, after school, weekend, and summer programming for girls of all backgrounds between the ages of 6-18. Girls Inc. prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, or sexual orientation.

Junior Achievement (JA) offers volunteer-led experiential learning to promote entrepreneurship and financial literacy among students. According to the Diversity Statement on its website, JA welcomes students, volunteers and staff without regard to religion or sexual orientation.

The National 4-H Council is a youth development organization with a focus on science, citizenship, and healthy living for children and teens. It is the private sector, non-profit partner of 4-H National Headquarters, which is located within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The National 4-H Council handbook states that the organization does not discriminate against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or religion, and its affiliation with the USDA also prohibits such discrimination in its programs and activities.

Navigators USA is a scouting organization whose website states that children and adults are welcome to participate regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs. The group promotes a traditional scouting experience with an emphasis on diversity and inclusion.

Religious Organizations

The Calvinist Cadet Corps is a Christian organization designed to help boys grow spiritually with the help of its mentoring and ministry programs. The Corps did not provide a non-discrimination policy but stated that "the individual churches select and approve men for leadership in training boys."

The Knights of Columbus' Columbian Squires is an international youth development organization designed to teach leadership to Catholic boys and young men who are "willing and capable of patterning their lives after the Youth Christ." The Columbian Squires did not respond to our request for a non-discrimination policy.

The Pathfinders of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church is a youth group emphasizing outdoor activities, religious education, and building character. The Pathfinders did not respond to our request for a non-discrimination policy.

The Royal Ambassadors / Challengers (RA) is a part of the Women's Missionary Union (WMU), an auxiliary of the Southern Baptist Convention. RA aims to teach boys how to develop a Christian character with Bible-centered activities and mission work as well as more traditional scout activities, such as camping. WMU states that it does not have a "non-discrimination policy for RA because [RA chapters] are church-based and churches select their own leaders without input from WMU."

Spiral Scouts International is a scouting organization founded by the Aquarian Tabernacle Church. Though its origins are in the Wiccan/Pagan community, the group's website says that it is "nondiscriminatory in all regards" and does not exclude on the basis of gender, religion, or sexual orientation. Spiral Scouts offers honorary status of "Path Finder" and the "Award of Founder" (its highest rank) to former Eagle Scouts who have returned their badges over disagreement with the BSA's policies.

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