Kicked Out of the Boy Scouts for Being an Atheist June 25, 2009

Kicked Out of the Boy Scouts for Being an Atheist

My friend Neil Polzin served on the board of directors for the Secular Student Alliance a couple years ago.

I got this message from him last night and it needs to be passed along.

The short version: He was fired from his job with the Boy Scouts of America… likely because they found out about his non-religious beliefs.

The letter from Neil (emphases mine):

“We have received information that has compelled us to revoke your registration. You must immediately sever any relationship you may have with the Boy Scouts of America.”

Today I received a letter from Marcus Mack at the San Gabriel Valley Council that started this way. What was my offense that makes me so inappropriate to be around children? Before your mind fills with thoughts of violence, violations of youth protection or any other deplorable action, it is simply because I am an atheist.

That’s the only reason for the revoking of my membership. I am being kicked out of the BSA because they feel that I am not a capable role model for children. Regardless of the 15 years I have spent in the scouts, any achievements or recognitions along the way.

It is not only that I can’t ever go to my home troop growing up and visit. Along with making it impossible to volunteer for the scouts in any capacity, It also eliminates me from my current paid position as Aquatics Director at Camp Cherry Valley. I am being kicked out AND fired for being an atheist by my employer.

This has been the policy of the BSA for years, to discriminate against homosexuals and the godless. It is an easy policy to look past, because most do not know anyone it has affected. It keeps people in the closet about their personal beliefs or habits, and gives an example of discrimination being ok to the many children in scouts. It is now directly affecting me, along with the hundreds of cubs I was set to swim, kayak and snorkel with this summer. Just as it has effected so many others in the past.

There is an appeals process in the scouts, one that I plan on following over the upcoming weeks. I know that over the years I have had a great effect on my peers and youth in the scouts and in life, as they have had on me. Any examples of this I would be very grateful for you to write about (scout related or not). I do not know if it will be enough to have any change in outcome, but I want the executives to see how this policy negatively affects scouters and scouting. If you feel this is wrong as I do, send your letters to Marcus Mack (Scout Executive/CEO SGVC 3450 East Sierra Madre Blvd Pasadena, CA 91107), and also make a point to express your viewpoint to him if you are at the council offices. Please also send me a copy (digital or print) so I may include it in my appeal to national.

It is easy to say that without scouts I would not be who I am today. It has given me so much, and so I have tried to give back over the last 7 years as an adult. That looks to be no longer possible due to blatant discrimination on the behalf of the BSA.

Neil Polzin

The BSA has a habit of kicking out qualified individuals because of their religious beliefs and sexual orientation. All the stories I’ve read about, though, involve people in voluntary positions. I’m not sure what the legal situation is when we’re talking about paid staff.

If you write something, please paste it in the comments.

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  • chinaman

    isn’t this illegal?
    to fire someone based on their belief/non belief?

  • The following posting comes from Hemant Mehta an American Blogger who I follow daily. I believe it is worthy of mention because of the manner in which the individual named Neil Polzin was kicked out of his troop and fired.

    Before you give it a read, I wanted to share the Scouts Canada nondiscrimination policy with you. (Remember that Neil Polzin is not a Canadian but is from the US. There is apparently a stark contrast between Canadian scouts policy and the American policy.)

    The Canadian Policy States:
    “7001.6 – Discrimination:
    Scouting is a worldwide, multicultural movement. We welcome people to membership regardless of gender, race, culture, religious belief, sexual orientation or economic circumstances. Youth members are strongly influenced by the behaviour of adults. We need to be sensitive to the traditions and beliefs of all people and to avoid words or actions which “put down” anybody.”

    Jeff’s Note: Religious beleif is included and is protected in Canada. It is quite safe to assume an atheist would be safe as a scout here in Canada. The main point expressed elsewhere in the policy is that no scout leader should assert any personal religious beliefs to the children, ever. Scouting is not primarily a religious exercise in Canada. It appears simply to be about Scouting, building character, etc.

    The American “official” policy states: “Personal equality. The uniform represents a democratic idea of equality; bringing people of different racial, economic, religious, national, ethnic, political, and geographical backgrounds together in the Scouting tradition.”

    “Personal commitment. The uniform is a constant reminder to all Tiger Cubs, Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Varsity Scouts, Venturers, and adults of their commitment to the ideals and purpose of the Boy Scouts of America. The uniform encourages them to take Scouting seriously because of the investment in uniforms by parents of youths and by adults. The uniform is a way of making visible members’ commitment to a belief in God, loyalty to country, and helping others at all times.”

    It is important to note that the American Version includes a mandatory beleif in God.

    Finally here is Hemant Mehta’s story: (the story is posted in full on my blog, no need to post it here too)

  • Scott

    I was refused a position as a camp counselor at a YMCA camp due to being an Atheist. They have a bit more legitimate position, being a declared christian association, but they didn’t tell me until i had been through the whole training course and paid them a lot of money to be there. They actually specifically said it was because I was an Atheist right after telling me what a great counselor I would be. It was pretty crushing to me as a 17 year old hopeful.

    Anyway, they certainly were not hesitant to not hire me based on my religious check-box.

  • The scouts are a religious group, so yeah, they can kick you out for being atheist. As for losing a job…he may have a case there. I wanted my son to be a scout but I didn’t want to deal with the religious aspect. My friend’s son is one, and they are atheists, so I don’t know what would happen if it came up.

  • stephen

    Three or four years ago, after determining I don’t believe in any gods, I wrote to my local BSA council and asked what should be done with my Eagle Scout award they had given me in 1993. I wasn’t trying to be an asshole, but honestly wanted to know if there was an established protocol for former scouts that lose their faith. They never wrote back, though I did find out sometime later that the other guy in the dual awards ceremony with me also became an atheist.

  • Tom

    He should definitely speak to an employment lawyer about it immediately, BEFORE starting the boy scouts appeal process, because if he doesn’t, the scouts could gain some information from the appeal process that they will use against him.

  • silver

    It’s a shame that scouting has changed so much from Baden-Powels vision. Although I would encourage the guy to sue the people that fired him, he was fired because of his choice of beliefs, or lack thereof, which is religious discrimination.

    It could also help the scouting organization, a slap in the face telling them to ‘WAKE UP!’ Hopefully it’ll change their opinion on their policies.

    One can hope.

  • Jerry Priori

    So, he knew about the policy for years, but didn’t want to take any action against the discrimination until it directly involved him? I can’t say I have very much sympathy. Were I him, I would have resigned from the BS years ago.

    That said, they can kick him out of his position with the BS, the courts have made that quite clear. The employment issue is likely another matter. He should contact a lawyer about that. The courts have made it clear in this area, too, that the same laws that prevent employment discrimination based on religious belief applies equally to atheists. If an employer cannot fire someone for being Jewish, he or she cannot be fired for being an atheist either. Of course, religious organizations carve out all kinds of exclusions for themselvs that enable them to ignore civil rights laws. He may well be screwed if Camp Cherry Valley is a private religious organization.

  • Christy C.

    I went through an hour-long job interview with a faith-based food pantry before they told me that since I didn’t believe in biblical literalism, they couldn’t hire me. Fine, but why not tell me before the interview, or at its beginning, that that is a requirement?

  • Yeah, this is tough. I’ve always defending the BSA for not admitting atheists/homosexuals because they are a private organization and have that right. I think they are a despicable organization, but they have a right to be so.

    But, firing people enters an entirely different situation and I’d love to see them get sued over it.

  • cathy

    They discriminate based on sex and gender as well. No girls allowed.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Other organizations which discriminate against atheists:
    The American Legion

  • As was already brought up, what would the reaction by the general public be if he was fired for being Jewish, Buddhist, or Muslim?

  • dfledermaus

    As was already brought up, what would the reaction by the general public be if he was fired for being Jewish, Buddhist, or Muslim?

    They would say, “We don’t discriminate based on religion. Atheism isn’t a religion.”

    Of course when it’s convenient for their arguments, they say it is a religion!

  • TXatheist

    Private organization…good luck but I doubt the outcome is in the atheist favor.

  • They would say, “We don’t discriminate based on religion. Atheism isn’t a religion.”

    Of course when it’s convenient for their arguments, they say it is a religion!

    Atheism isn’t a religion but can be treated as such by the law. It is simple pragmatism.

    A few people have mentioned legal options and how religious organisations seem to be able to bypass the law. This cannot be right. No organisation or employer can write into a contract a clause that is contrary to the law of the land and expect that clause to have any legal standing. It is unthinkable that a religious organisation could wield that kind of power. If government wasn’t answerable to the people it would be unthinkable that they could hold this kind of power.

    What has happened here is that someone has lost their job due to the discriminatory practices of an organisation. Discrimination on religious grounds is unlawful except is special circumstances. Prior knowledge of the organisation’s policies is irrelevant. He could have lost his faith last Thursday or been a long time atheist.

    Considering the fact that he has suffered a financial loss by losing his job means he should seek legal opinion on whether to sue or not. I would.

  • Just4Kix

    Is it true that the Boy Scouts are “pwned” by the Mormons? If so, there’s your answer.

    Penn & Teller’s Showtime show called “Bull Sh*t” brings up some interesting points about the Boy Scouts.

    Check it out on YouTube:

  • Problem is the US Scouts get public money.

  • Erp

    As others have said, contact a lawyer.

    This is religious discrimination but whether it is legal religious discrimination is the question.

    It is a pity that the Boy Scouts of America keep taking this route (the Girl Scouts are different organization and don’t [and get regularly attacked by the religious right for not]).

  • That’s why instead of Scouts you should go to Camp Quest, the secular summer camp.

  • RobL

    It’s a shame that scouting has changed so much from Baden-Powell’s vision.

    It has not changed – here is a quote from an early 19th century copy of his book on Scouting:

    “No man is much good unless he believes in God and obeys His
    laws. So every Scout should have a religion….Religion seems
    a very simple thing: First: Love and serve God. Second: Love
    and serve your neighbour.” (Scouting for Boys)

    The fact is that Scouts has been intertwined with Christianity since it’s inception. He may have a valid discrimination case regarding his employment but I would not count on it. I considered applying for an engineering job at a Presbyterian college but could not sign the document which required that I profess to being a Christian. If he signed something similar for his camp job he could be accused of misrepresentation. Scouts teach that the Christian god is fundamental to good citizenship. BS in my opinion but my opinion does not count in this case.

    As long as they are a private non-profit and not receiving public money they have a right to not employ people who are directly opposed to one of their prime beliefs. I don’t think we really would want to change that either. If Ray Comfort managed to get hired as a councilor at Camp Quest I would sure want the ability to fire him.

    This one can cut both ways and we should be careful not to restrict the rights of private non-profit groups. I feel bad for the person who lost his job but he kind of brought it on himself by not making it clear to his employer early on that he disagreed with one of the fundamentals of the organization.

  • Erp

    Baden-Powell also allowed modifications to the promise for scouts in Buddhist countries so they could say it (duty to God became duty to my religion). An idea that the Girl Scouts in the US drew upon to allow girls to modify the God part of their promise to best fit their beliefs. The Boy Scouts of America do not allow any word change. Would Baden-Powell have discriminated against atheists, probably. However that was then when many other organization probably would, not now.

    Hoverfrog, my guess is that the BSA would argue that Aquatic Director is similar to a youth minister role (e.g., he is suppose to instruct the youth including the bit about duty to God) and therefore falls within the allowable reasons for discriminating on religious grounds.

  • Justin jm

    Problem is the US Scouts get public money.

    Do you have a source for that, PrimeNumbers? I thought the BSA received public funds as well, but the Wiki page for BSA says that its funding comes from “private donations, membership dues, corporate sponsors, and special events.”

  • RobL

    I thought the BSA received public funds as well, but the Wiki page for BSA says that its funding comes from “private donations, membership dues, corporate sponsors, and special events.”

    The BSA 2007 audited financial statement does not show any public funding although it could be buried under “Donations and Bequests”. Since that total number is less than 6% of revenue it would have to be a tiny and insignificant part of their budget. “Public Funding” can also mean a lot of things. My guess is that the public funding consists of below market rate use of public buildings and lands. I’m a lot more worried about directly funded things like “Faith Based Initiatives” than whether a BSA troop is allowed to use the community center for free.

  • I thought they got free use of public buildings like schools for their meetings and such like.

  • Tom S

    This is for Neil’s appeal process

    As an Eagle Scout, I am again disappointed with the BSA’s actions in the area of religious discrimination. The Boy Scouts of America should be an organization based on service and scouting, as well as American values of religious freedom and cooperation. Neil has provided service to Camp Cherry Valley that should be considered first and foremost, not simply one’s group loyalties.

    Let me know if you need my name, I’ll keep that confidential for now

  • RobL

    I thought they got free use of public buildings like schools for their meetings and such like.

    That is true in many cases. Humanist and atheist groups use public buildings as well. If you want an extreme example Neo-Nazi groups march down public streets without paying for their use either. It is pretty clear cut that public money should not be given to the BSA due to their bigoted policies but it gets a little gray when you start equating use of public facilities for meetings with government sponsorship of a particular organization.

  • B

    I chimed in on my crunchy mommy blog. Not a lot of readers but maybe some other mommy bloggers will follow suit.

  • Lewis

    I have no sympathy. He’s known for years the BSA was a hate group and he chose to work for them.

  • Stephen

    They do use Fort AP Hill in Virginia for their National Jamboree every four years, or at least they used to. If I recall correctly they’re not charged for use of the land.

  • there have also been problems with Scouts being allowed to use public facilities such as schools, but the schools refused to allow student atheist groups to form, which does become a problem.

    Wasn’t there something in the news over the past couple years about the Catholic Church being allowed to discriminate by hiring only Catholics? I seem to recall something about the Salvation Army having an issue with this, too.

  • Aspentroll

    I would hope he has a chance to sue their asses off for some kind of discriminatory dismissal since he was a hired employee.

  • gribblethemunchkin

    When i was in the Cub Scouts and Scouts over here in England, the oath was to “do my duty to god and to the queen”.

    That was the sole extent of religious intrusion into it.

    Of course now as an atheistic anti-monarchist, i’m not so sure i’d be all that comfortable with it.

  • Will

    Hey guys grammer and sentance structure were never my strong points in H.S. (probably why I teach chemistry). What do you all think?

    My name is William, I am an Eagle Scout, Order of the Arrow Brotherhood member, I have 60 merit badges, I obtained the Ad Altare Dei and Pope Pius XII award, and I am an Atheist. I was in Boy Scouts from 1993 to 2009 when I left because I no longer agreed that you had to believe in god(s) in order to be a successful person. I know that the BSA is a private organization and can exclude members of certain communities based on their sexual orientation or non-religious preference but to fire an otherwise upstanding camp counselor because of this is just disgraceful. I am ashamed and appalled that this organization that has given me so many opportunities and opened many doors in my life cannot see the great things that this man has done and can only see him as a one word person.
    In short I believe that it is irresponsible for you to fire this man based on a non-performance issue.

  • As far as I have ever heard, this level of religiousness is exclusive to the Boy Scouts of AMERICA, not to the world-wide organisation. Yes, there is reference to god and the queen in Canadian and Commonwealth countries, but it’s pretty much a token statement.

    In Canada we never went to church, except to participate in the local community’s Remembrance Day ceremonies with the war vets. There was no prayer involved at all, and I remember having friends in the troop who were Bahai, Muslim, Sikh, and atheistic. God didn’t have anything to do with tying knots or camping at the lake, and any special god-related things were a private matter (except the hotdogs… always had the good beef ones thanks to our Muslim friend 🙂

    The ‘god and queen’ reference is as shallow and empty as the “in god we trust” on US currency – if it went away, it wouldn’t change the heart of the program.

    I’d have no trouble as an atheist sending a kid to Canadian Scouts… but I might caution against him hanging around with the BSA types at camps.

  • Neil Polzin

    Thank you. I must of missed this being posted, but I am catching the other blogs picking up on you! I have sent off a request to the Southern California ACLU, lets see what can change.

  • Neil Polzin

    for what it is worth, you can be employed in the BSA as a female, they just dont allow them to be youth members.

    Thank you for your kinds words, they come in handy in times like this

    Neil Polzin

  • Elsa

    The Girl Scouts (GSUSA) are different–they err on the side of PC. It says in our handbook that one may substitute the word “God” in the Girl Scout Promise with anything that represents your beliefs (“Allah,” “the Great Spirit,” etc.). When I worked at resident camp a few years ago, there were also very strict rules about sleeping, dressing, etc. that were meant to minimize the risk of sexual abuse cases like those that plague the BSA.

  • Concerned for the facts

    Lets set the facts straight here…Neil is not a paid employee as you might assume he is. The camp at Camp Cherry Valley that he refers to is only one week out of the year and all staff members are volunteer. Neil receives a small reimbursment, not a pay check. I think the bull s**t is on the side of trying to get the whole community in an uproar for something that he had full knowledge of and prosituted for his own gain. Now that he outed himself he feels that he can howl at the moon and look for pathetic sympathy. Shame on you Neil!!!

  • CRL

    Wow. I didn’t know that they actually enforced the ban on atheists. In my sea scout ( a branch of BSA) ship, we have two (including me) semi-open atheists and we don’t pray at our meetings.

  • I thought part of scouts was everybody being free to believe what they want. And I thought that was also emphasised at Jamborees.

    This seems unfair

  • K.J.

    I know it has already been established that Neil is not really an “employee”. However, even if he was, I think his being fired would still not be illegal.

    Even though you can’t be fired for prejudice, you can be fired for pretty much any other reason, including, being incapable of performing your job. If the BSA are a big customer and refuse to have anything to do with him (because of their prejudice, not the camps) the camp can fire him for not being able to adequately fill the position.

    With that said, I am utterly disgusted by the dishonestly of the BSA. They violate their own oath. I’m perfectly fine with them being a private organization, but they need to refuse public funding.

  • Cloc

    The problem with all of this is “why does everyone have to be excepting”? Boys dont try to join the Girl Scouts and Catholics dont try to join Atheist groups. I have nothing against atheist or homosexuals but if the Scouts take a stand on membership why can’t it be accepted? Why would you want to be a part of an organization that doesn’t want you? Does everything have to be fair? The answer is no. In case you haven’t noticed, life isn’t fair. Get used to it. Stop whinning and go join another organization or better yet start your own.

  • Robert

    I am 48 years old. I don’t remember any emphasis on god when I was a Cub Scout. Yes, I understand that the organization was teaching “godliness” but never was it shoved down our throats like it is today. I have been a den leader a couple of times over the last few years, and every year it’s getting more and more religious. I do my best to cater to the kids’ beliefs and incorporate them in some small way. Really what I discuss is morality and ethics, but I give them a chance to express how their “god” figures into all of that. The “god and Family” package is terrible. It likens ‘god’ to the toppings on a pizza. To which I say, at least pizza is real. Anyway, what’s wrong with learning survival skills and leaving beliefs out of it ! I never admit that I am agnostic, or that my two boys in scouts are agnostic also. We have caved in because there aren’t any other options where we live. I am ashamed, but I am glad my kids are interacting with others and learning skills. My kids spent two nights at a Camp-o-Ree and on Sunday they forced them to attend a sermon. Our troop leader fancies himself a minister. The things my kids recanted from the sermon were so ignorant and pathetic. I kind of wish I had attended, for the fun of ignorance.

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