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Five Things You Didn’t Know About the Boy Scouts of America

The Boy Scouts will begin admitting girls next year, just one of many changes the organization has undergone over the years

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This week, the Boy Scouts of America announced that for the first time they will allow girls to join their ranks. Julie Bosman and Niraj Chokshi at The New York Times report that the organization will allow girls to join Cub Scout packs beginning in 2018 and will implement a path for female scouts to earn the Eagle Scout rank starting the following year.

According to a press release, local Cub Scout groups can decide whether to allow all-female dens into their packs, establish separate packs for girls or remain all male. BSA leadership says there are several reasons for making the change. First, they say it is more convenient for busy families to have their children belong to one organization rather than multiple organizations with different meeting times and places. Second, they say they want to offer the activities and values of Scouting to interested girls.  “We believe it is critical to evolve how our programs meet the needs of families interested in positive and lifelong experiences for their children. We strive to bring what our organization does best – developing character and leadership for young people – to as many families and youth as possible as we help shape the next generation of leaders,” BSA says in the press release.

Some critics see the change in a more cynical light. The Times reports that in the 1970s at its peak, Boy Scout organizations had 5 million members. Today that number is down to 2.3 million. Admitting girls may be a bid to boost numbers and financial security.

According to Pete Williams at NBC News, the change was approved by a unanimous vote by the organization's board of directors. The move is historic but it's just one of many ways the Boy Scouts of America have wrestled with gender and identity in the past century. Here are five things to know about the Boy Scouts of America: 

Some Boy Scout Programs Already Allow Girls

The BSA actually already operate several co-ed programs. The Venturing program, begun in 1998, teaches men and women age 14 to 21 outdoor skills like rappelling, rafting and encourage participation in community service projects. The Exploring program allows boys and girls to work with mentors in various career fields to get first hand experience in what jobs they may want to pursue. Sea Scouts allows boys and girls to learn about seamanship and cooperation while STEM Scouts exposes kids about science, technology, engineering and math through hands on activities and lab sessions.

England and Canada Have Been Co-Ed for Decades

Co-ed Scouting is not unusual. Even in the United States similar programs like Camp Fire and Navigators USA have been co-ed for a long time. In 1991, the Boy Scouts in the United Kingdom, where the movement was started, went co-ed and Canada granted the option of going co-ed to its member groups in 1992, later opening up the organization six years later. It also changed its name from Boy Scouts of Canada to Scouts Canada in 2007. Other countries' versions of Scouting have also been co-ed for many years.

The Girl Scouts Aren’t Happy With the Boys

The Girl Scouts of the USA, a separate organization from the Boy Scouts are upset with the admittance of girls into the organization. Over the summer the Girl Scouts accused the Boy Scouts of a “covert campaign to recruit girls” and dissuade them from joining the organization.

The Girl Scouts argue that its program is tailor-made for girls and that girls get more out of unisex program than they will by joining a co-ed group. “Research supports our premise that many girls learn best in an all-girl, girl-led, and girl-friendly environment where their specific interests and needs are met," Andrea Bastiani Archibald, a psychologist associated with the organization, tells Williams.

This Isn’t The Only Recent Change for the Boy Scouts

In January, the Boy Scouts voted to allow transgender scouts into the organization, writing in a statement,

“For more than 100 years, the Boy Scouts of America, along with schools, youth sports and other youth organizations, have ultimately deferred to the information on an individual’s birth certificate to determine eligibility for our single-gender programs. However, that approach is no longer sufficient as communities and state laws are interpreting gender identity differently, and these laws vary widely from state to state.”

That followed a 2013 vote that allowed openly gay boys to join the Scouts and the lifting of a ban on “avowed homosexual” Scout leaders in 2015. Critics, however, say that a loophole in that ban exempting Scouting groups chartered by religious organizations from accepting gay leaders undermines the change since roughly 72 percent of Scouting groups are run by religious organizations.

The Godless Are Still Banned From Scouts

While Scouts have opened up on many fronts, the organization still stands firm against allowing atheists and agnostics into the organization. Members, whether male or female, need to agree with the organizations Declaration of Religious Principals, reports Wendy Kaminer at The Atlantic:

“The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God ... The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe and the grateful acknowledgment of His favors and blessings are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing members.”

The Supreme Court affirmed BSA's right to exclude open agnostics or atheists from its membership in 2000. However, Unitarian Universalist Association-affiliated troops can set their own rules about whom to accept. Back in the late 1990s, the Boy Scouts and the UUA broke ties over the Boy Scouts' refusal to admit openly agnostic or atheist scouts, as well as scouts that identify as gay. After the Boy Scouts changed its policy on gay scouts and gay scout leaders, Boy Scouts and UUA signed a memorandum of understanding in 2016, allowing UUA-affiliated troops to admit openly agnostic or atheist members to its ranks.

There has been at least one case in which atheists went to court to get their Eagle Scout badges after refusing to take an oath to God.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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