By Rob Boston
I wish to respond to Mathew Goldstein’s recent criticisms of Americans United for Separation of Church and State on this blog.
I have worked at Americans United for 26 years. In that time, I have observed the organization work repeatedly to protect the rights of all Americans – religious and non-religious – to be free from government-sponsored theology. I resent my organization and the good people who work there being called "hypocrites." Such a characterization is not only untrue, it is offensive.
There are many non-believers among AU’s membership, and over the years we have, time and again, stood up for the civil rights and equality of humanists, atheists, agnostics and non-believers. Non-believers have been plaintiffs in just about all of our major cases, among them the challenge to “Ten Commandments” Judge Roy Moore in Alabama, the fight against “intelligent design” in Dover, Pa., and most, recently, our lawsuit against official prayers before municipal meetings in Greece, N.Y.
Americans United is a coalition. Some of our members are religious and some are not. All are dedicated to the principle that government must never impose religion onto the unwilling nor treat anyone as second-class citizen based on what they believe, or don’t believe, about god. We frequently work with religious and secular groups to achieve this goal.
Mr. Goldstein is disappointed in the way that AU dealt with a matter he brought to our attention. Rather than assume that Americans United had abandoned its commitment to protecting the rights of non-believers, perhaps he should have asked if the situation he raised was a strong church-state violation. As it turns out, it may not be.
According to his complaint, Mr. Goldstein is upset because he believes the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is sponsoring a Boy Scout troop. AU’s intake attorney did investigate the matter and was unable to find strong evidence that the department does in fact sponsor the troop. However, after Mr. Goldstein provided some additional information, the attorney referred the matter to AU’s full Legal Department for further review.
That process is ongoing. While things may not be proceeding at the pace Mr. Goldstein would like, it’s important to remember that Americans United receives complaints concerning church-state violations every day. We examine each one, and this can occasionally create a backlog. The file on this matter remains open.
I share the frustration many humanists feel over issues related to the Boy Scouts. Last year, the BSA changed its policies and now allows gay Scouts, but it hasn’t budged on atheists. The BSA’s policy of excluding non-believers is reprehensible, but it has proven a difficult issue to challenge in court. In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Boy Scouts of America vs. Dale that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is a private organization that may legally deny membership to gays and atheists.
After that ruling, the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue public schools and other units of government that sponsored Boy Scout troops. In 2005, the BSA recommended that government entities stop sponsoring Boy Scout troops. The BSA was worried that public schools and other arms of government might get sued. Many schools and government offices, worried about the time and expense of a lawsuit, did indeed end sponsorship of Boy Scout troops.
No court ordered them to do this. Thus, there is no case law explicitly stating that units of government may not sponsor BSA troops. From a legal perspective, this is a murky situation.
I am sorry Mr. Goldstein is disappointed, but I want to assure him and others that Americans United has not deviated from its willingness to assist freethinkers. In reality, we’re more than willing to help non-believers and do it all of the time.
For more information about Americans United and the work that we do, please visit www.au.org or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.