Atheists in the Cub Scout Den

by Patrick J. Buchanan – January 6, 1998

The opening lines of the Boy Scout oath run thus:
“I promise to do my best / To do my duty to God and my country.”

In 1991, 9-year-old twins Michael and William Randall of Anaheim Hills, Calif., refused to take the oath, or to acknowledge any duty to God. They were atheists, the boys said. Fine, replied the mother of Cub Scout Den 4, which expelled them.

Orange County judges reinstated the boys, who have advanced since to the threshold of Eagle Scouts, the highest honor a Scout can attain. Yet again, the Boy Scouts of America refuses to advance them, if the twins continue to refuse the oath. On Jan. 5, the California Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the Randall case, and on another case where a Los Angeles Scout was denied adult membership because he is a homosexual.

The court battles are likely to turn on a single issue: Are the Boys Scouts a private organization with freedom of association and the right to set their own standards of membership? Or are they a business, a public accommodation, subject to California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, which forbids discrimination against atheists?

While the twins seem to be likable boys who love scouting, believers in a free society will stand by the Scouts. For though the Boy Scouts may sell scouting paraphernalia, or receive funds from United Way, to call them a business or public accommodation is a distortion. Whatever their peripheral activities, the Boys Scouts have always been a private organization. They have always had the right to set conditions for membership; they have always had their Scout oath and pledge.

In a CNN “Crossfire” interview, the twins made one compelling point. The Scouts’ pledge, they said, requires them to be honest. And if they are honest, they cannot take an oath that mandates faithfulness to a God in whom they do not believe. Fair point.

But the Scouts are not requiring the boys to be dishonest. The Scouts are simply saying that if you wish to be one of us, these are our terms of membership. If you cannot meet them, you cannot join.

James Randall replies that his twin sons are not demanding that the Scouts drop the oath, only that his boys be exempt. Sounds reasonable. Yet this would force the Boy Scouts to conform their traditions, beliefs and practices to atheist demands. Now the village atheist has a right to his beliefs; he has no right, however, to require others to conform their practices to accommodate him. That is atheistic arrogance. And to enlist the power of the state to force the Boy Scouts to drop or alter their oath would be tyranny.

James Randall’s own twin, John, a high-school history teacher and himself an Eagle Scout, says his brother is running a “personal vendetta” because “he could never make it in Scouting.” Said John: “I’m vehemently opposed to the whole idea of his boys taking up Eagle badges. … They do not deserve to wear it. If they get away with this stunt, this scam, and get Eagle badges, I and everyone who wears an Eagle badge would have been shamed.”

Family feuds aside, this is not a battle between teen-age twins and the Boy Scouts of America. This is a battle between the Boy Scouts and the state of California. And the issue is: Who shall decide what oath the Boy Scouts may require?

Will it be the Boy Scouts, or will that oath now be subject to the review of the state? Suppose the boys claimed to be Marxists and refused to take an oath to do their duty to “their country.” Would they still have a right to exempt themselves from the oath and remain in the Scouts?

The issue is to be decided in March; and if the Boy Scouts are stripped of the right to set their terms of membership, what private organization will retain it? The Randalls versus the Scouts is thus one of countless skirmishes in a struggle in America between those who believe in freedom and those who believe all institutions must conform to their ideals; and if they refuse to conform, raw judicial power must be used to force them.

Who is losing this struggle is obvious. The great majority of Americans are seeing their freedoms steadily circumscribed by unelected judges who routinely abuse their power with impunity.

California is a case in point. By ballot referenda, Californians voted to impose term limits on their legislators, to end welfare to illegal aliens, to outlaw racial preferences in state programs. After each vote, a judge stepped in to strike down the will of the people.

The great issue of our time is: Whose will shall be the law in America — the will of the judges or the will of the majority?