Reading about the fatal tragedy at the Boy Scout Jamboree, two things struck me. First of all, the death of four people in front of their entire troop really is a horrible tragedy, and given the way that it appears the four died, I can’t imagine it’ll be all that easy for some of the kids to recover from that. In an entirely different vein, though, I also realized that the Jamboree is taking place on federal land — the Army’s Fort A.P. Hill — which means that our government still feels it appropriate to give access, funding, and support to an organization that specifically excludes gay, athiest, and agnostic people. I honestly don’t understand how this can still be occurring.

Doing a little reading this evening about the state of our government’s Boy Scout support, I discovered a few interesting things. First, I learned that a judge in the Northern Illinois U.S. District Court issued a ruling earlier this month which bars government support of future Boy Scouts Jamborees. The decision is available (in PDF form) from the ACLU’s website; it contains a thorough description of how the Boy Scouts meet the standard of a religious organization, and as such, how explicit government support thus violates the Constitution’s prohibition of a link between government and religion. Seems logical to me, and would seem to put this whole issue to bed. Oh, if it were only that easy.

The other thing I learned tonight demonstrates why it’s not that easy; it revolves around an argument made by the government in the Illinois court case that has set the stage for at least one future attempt to maintain government support of the Boy Scouts. Essentially, the U.S. claimed that the plaintiffs in the lawsuit — people who, as federal taxpayers, brought suit under their right to exercise oversight over the way their tax money was being spent — lack standing to claim harm because the money wasn’t spent pursuant to the clause of the Constitution dealing with taxation and government spending (Article I, section 8, clause 1). Instead, the Department of Defense claimed that their support of the Boy Scout Jamboree derived from the specific powers vested in Congress over military affairs (Article I, section 8, clauses 12-14), and as such, taxpayers wouldn’t have the same right to question the way the money is spent. The District Court judge found ample evidence that the money was spent at least in part under Congress’ taxation and spending authority, and dismissed the argument. The reason this is interesting to me is that it appears our Senate took note of this, and passed an amendment to the Defense Department spending bill yesterday, an amendment which explicitly allows the Secretary of Defense to support the Boy Scout Jamboree on the basis of it being required “for defending our national security and preparing for combat.” (To see the amendment, you can follow this link to the Congressional Record documents, click the link to page S8686, and then scroll down two or three screens to “SA 1342”, the relevant text.)

Now you see why I find this so fascinating? It’s clear that the Constitution forbids our government from supporting organizations that mandate religious faith (like the Boy Scouts), and it’s also pretty clear that there’s no way the Senate would get the country to amend that ban out of the Constitution. So in order to get around it, the Senate is trying to pass laws that aim to prevent ordinary taxpayers from having sufficient standing to bring suit — “what we do might be unconstitutional, but you don’t have the right to file a court case to demonstrate that, so we can do it anyway.” And as the final straw, they did all of it by declaring that the Boy Scout Jamboree is vital for national security.

Ignoring fundamental prohibitions built into our Constitution is pretty bad… but getting caught doing so, and then responding by passing laws which aim to restrict oversight of the unconstitutional actions, is worse.

Update: Hey, lookie there — via Rafe, I appear to have ignited a MetaFilter shitstorm. Fun fun.


much of ur information on boyscouts is wrong about boyscouts. Its an organization for all boys, gays, atheists, and even hindus. As a boy scout of america, my troop contains a member from all three of these groups and no one has any problems with it. we do however prohibit the leaders from being what you mentioned above because it is a cristian organization and the bible outlaws those people, this way we can provide a positive influence on those boys. thanx

• Posted by: andy Wallin on Aug 18, 2005, 5:17 PM

for the record 4 into 43000 people is a very low deathrate for 10 days

• Posted by: andy wallin on Aug 18, 2005, 5:19 PM

Andy, thanks for proving my point with your comment about the leaders; those are the very restrictions that make the Boy Scouts ineligible for directed federal support. (And don’t think that I’m giving you a free pass on the whole “the bible outlaws those people”; I’m sure that there are tons of classes of people disparaged by plenty of other collections of fables, but it’s never been clear to me why that should mean that our government should give a crap.)

And as for your contention that the Boy Scouts of America, as an organization, is perfectly happy with gay and athiest members, you might want to read the Northern Illinois District Court ruling; it makes clear the fact not only that official BSA literature make it clear that gays and athiests aren’t welcome, but that the BSA never contested the claim that the organization prohibits membership by gays and athiests. Seems pretty clear to me.

Again, nobody here’s arguing that the Boy Scouts don’t have the right to set membership criteria, only that when those criteria exclude people based on religion or sexuality, then the BSA shouldn’t get federal privileges.

Oh, and as for your death rate comment, it’d be nice if you had any data to back up your claim. Alas, it’s too easy to find the data — and it disagrees with you. According to the 2003 data in the latest National Vital Statistics Reports, the annual accidental death rate for all ages is 36.1 deaths per 100,000 people (table 2, and note that that’s all accidents, including motor vehicle accidents, and across all age groups). That’s 15.5 deaths per 43,000 people per year, which comes to one death every 23.5 days per 43,000 people. So by the 2003 stats, the Jamboree would have to have gone on for 94 days in order to expect four deaths; clearly, this was a bit different. But thanks for playing.

• Posted by: Jason on Aug 18, 2005, 6:57 PM
Please note that comments automatically close after 60 days; the comment spammers love to use the older, rarely-viewed pages to work their magic. If comments are closed and you want to let me know something, feel free to use the contact page!