Today, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, through its Institute for Public Affairs, criticized a federal district court ruling that the federal government would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution if the government assists the Boy Scouts in mounting their quadrennial National Boy Scout Jamboree – slated for Fort A.P. Hill in Fredericksburg, Virginia later this summer. (The court entered an injunction against the government’s assistance for future Jamborees, leaving this year’s undisturbed.)
The case, Winkler v. Chicago School Reform Board Trustees, was filed by the ACLU in 1999 against the Department of Defense and Department of Housing and Urban Development, among others. (Boy Scouts of America is not a party to the case.) As the DOD told the court, the National Scout Jamboree is a unique training event for the military because it requires the construction, maintenance, and disassembly of a “tent city” capable of supporting many thousands for a week or longer. The military’s logistical and security support during the National Scout Jamboree has been an incomparable opportunity for training our armed forces. The district court, however, invalidated the statute authorizing such support as unconstitutional because Scouting has a nonsectarian “duty to God” requirement. The district court relied on an unprecedented trial court decision from San Diego, Barnes-Wallace v. Boy Scouts of America, which also was filed by the ACLU and currently is on appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Boy Scouts of America and numerous amici curiae – including the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division – believe that this aspect of the case was wrongly decided.
Importantly, the trial court denied the ACLU’s attempt to invalidate valuable programs offered by Boy Scouts of America with the support of HUD. Boy Scouts of America uses support from the Public Housing Drug Elimination Program and Community Development Block Grant program to benefit low-income youth. The district court dismissed the ACLU’s claims seeking to cancel that support. The court held that, even on its own terms that the Boy Scouts is a religious, though not pervasively sectarian, organization, it may receive government grants on religiously neutral terms to provide social welfare services.
Nathan J. Diament, director of public policy for the Union, issued the following statement:
The trial court’s ruling in this case and its interpretation of the Establishment Clause are very troubling. With regard to the Boy Scouts’ partnership with the Dept. of Defense, the court accepted the ACLU’s misinterpretation of the mainstream understanding of the Establishment Clause (an understanding which, ironically, the ACLU has opposed in many court cases) that it requires governmental neutrality toward religious entities, as opposed to discrimination against religious entities as advocates for a “strict separation” of religion and state often demand. The Boy Scouts is clearly a non-sectarian organization which welcomes participants of diverse faiths and backgrounds; many Orthodox synagogues sponsor Boy Scout troops and their needs are accommodated at the Jamboree. In its services related to the Jamboree, the Defense Department is gaining a secular benefit for itself – training its personnel in certain tasks, and providing a service to an organization which is nonsectarian. Such assistance is government neutrality toward religion and thus appropriate and constitutional under the Establishment Clause. We are encouraged by the trial court’s dismissal of the ACLU’s specious attacks on the Boy Scouts’ receipt of HUD and CDBG grants.