While there had been instances of youth being expelled from the Boy Scouts because of their non-theistic beliefs, it was only in 1985 that the issue caused the media to highlight BSA's religious principles to the American public. It was this
incident that brought to the public's attention the BSA membership standards. In this it was religious belief.
One evening in April 1985, Troop 105, chartered to The Miller
School of Albemarle, a private school located in Charlottesville Virginia, held a Board of Review.
Boards of Review are required for Scouts wanting to advance in rank. For Scouts seeking to become a Tenderfoot, Second Class, or First Class Scout, these Boards of Review are conducted by the Scout leadership, with an adult advisor. For those Scouts wanting to advance to Star, Life or Eagle, the Boards of Review are comprised of
adult members of the Troop's Committee. On this evening, after being in Scouting for seven years, 15-year-old Paul B. Trout, having completed the requirements for Life Scout, presented himself to his troop's Board of Review.
A Board of Review for Life is supposed to be an opportunity for the Scout to talk with adults about his time in the troop, how he demonstrated leadership, his plans to complete the requirements for
Eagle Scout, his goals in Scouting, and to talk about how he lives the Scouting principles in his daily life. It is not designed to be either a confrontational situation or an examination of the requirements, for which he already had passed. For example, it would not be proper for a Board to ask a Scout to demonstrate a skill or knowledge for which an approved merit badge counselor had previously certified that he knew.
So, the ideal Board would spend 15-20 minutes engaged in a conversation with the prospective Life Scout about Scouting. As the Scoutmaster is required to conduct a Scoutmaster's Conference with a Scout prior to a Board of Review, it is incumbent upon the Scoutmaster to make sure a Scout is ready for advancement. Therefore, when a Scout presents himself to the Board, the Board is already predisposed to approving the Scout for advancement.
However, when Paul Trout went to his Board that evening, something had already gone wrong.
During the conversation between Paul and the Board, the subject
of how Paul fulfilled his duty to God was broached. When talking with Paul about this part of being a Scout, the Board used the words "Supreme Being," in referring to "God."
On March 16, 1978, BSA added the words "Supreme Being" in its religious policy. These words can be found in the 1984 edition of the Scoutmasters' Handbook ("Because duty to God, or a supreme being,
is an important Scouting ideal, a boy should be challenged to think about this aspect of life") and in the Scout Handbook (on page 414, ". . . a country whose people believe in a supreme being." and on page 41, "You show that you are reverent to God by serving Him in what you do, and by worshipping Him in the way your parents and spiritual leaders taught you.").
When the subject of Paul's belief in a "Supreme Being" was
discussed, Paul responded that "he did not have any belief in a Supreme Being, but rather had complete belief in self and self-reliance." Since the Board was looking at BSA documents which referred to a "Supreme Being" in discussions of God, they expected Paul to accept this relatively newly added definition as well. Given Paul's response, the Board sought advice from the Stonewall Jackson Area Council for guidance. The Council turned around and requested
guidance from the National Council on how best to proceed.
To say that both Paul and his parents were stunned by the Board's postponement is an understatement. They stated that
neither the registration form nor the Scout Handbook specified that explicit belief in God was a membership requirement. When the duty to God phrase in the Scout Oath was pointed out as just such a requirement, Paul said that he had not taken the Scout Oath literally. Paul approached the Scout Oath's duty to God phrase as being in the same category as the one nation under God phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance -- basically, a mouthed requirement which had little meaning.
Paul and his parents appealed to the Board, the Council, and to National to allow him to remain in Scouting so he could become an Eagle Scout. Paul stated that he respected the rights of others to believe in God.
BSA officials felt that the Trouts were equivocating, that the Scout Oath was not "a casual utterance," and that in regard to Paul, they stated that, "He'll have to decide between our ideology and his."
Paul and his parents received a letter from the Chief Scout Executive, Ben Love, on June 5, 1985. In this letter, Love continues to use the words "Supreme Being," by stating that, "If a person does not have belief in a Supreme Being, then they cannot be a member of the Boy Scouts of America . . . Youth and/or adult members of the (BSA) must meet certain membership requirements. One of these
requirements is a belief in a Supreme Being . . .The Stonewall Jackson council was correct in their response to Troop 105 concerning membership requirements."
Other than this one letter, the Trout's appeal went unanswered. However, the Board of Review did receive their own letter from National, in which they strongly suggested that they deny Paul's advancement to Life Scout and to also revoke his membership. And
on July 16, 1985, Paul was expelled from his troop. His Scoutmaster declared that Paul "is no longer a troop member or a member of the council. I hated to loose him. He was the best disciplined and most helpful of the boys in my troop."
Paul and his parents still remained hopeful that another troop would accept him, that the BSA would reconsider its decision, and that Paul would be able to complete his trail to Eagle Scout. But,
BSA was adamant in their position and considered the efforts of Paul's parents to be useless. One BSA spokesperson stated that, "The Boy Scouts makes a firm commitment to duty to god and to the country. It is absolutely clear that's one of our regulations. There is no discussion. That's it. He had a nice tenure, but he cannot be a Boy Scout anymore."
But that was not the end. On July 30, 1985, Paul, his mother, and others discussed the issue before a live audience on The Phil Donahue Show. During the show Paul reiterated that though he is
willing to speak of "God," he does not conceive of God as a "Supreme Being."
The wide-spread publicity of this incident caused BSA to review and revise it's religious policies. It also necessitated a Reaffirmation of the Position of the Boy Scouts of America on "Duty to God" by the National
Executive Board on October 10, 1985. In the revision of it's policy the BSA replaced the words "supreme being" with "God" from all of it's publications. From this point onward, the BSA was not defining God as a Supreme Being.
On that same day, October 10, 1985, the Boy Scouts of America reinstated Paul and awarded him the rank of Life Scout.
In an effort to minimize the negative publicity surrounding BSA's handling of the incident, Raul Chavez "maintained that Paul was never forced out of BSA." However, the Scoutmaster publicly
disagreed with that statement, as he reported that "upon instructions from national," he revoked Paul's membership in July.
Chavez explained the situation this way: "The Boy Scouts of America have made a thorough analysis of the matter. This involved contacts with members of the BSA National Religious Relationships Committee."
"What it boils down to, the reason this young man was denied
his Life Scout badge was that he could not adhere to the term supreme being. That was the terminology that he and his family stated many times as something he and his family could not adhere to."
"We have since learned that many other people out there interpreted the term 'supreme being' as a definition of God, describing God, and that was not the intent and we have eliminated all definitions from our literature. It is a fine point, but it is a crucial
point. The main thing is that we are not defining God."
Paul's mother, Anita Trout, told the Washington Post that her family was "delighted that they've taken this position. Paul's beliefs definitely have not changed.
The incident attracted so much media attention to the BSA's
religious membership requirement, that it caused the formation of a Duty to God Task Force to review all BSA literature, and served as a precursor for the legal battles that would await BSA from Mark Welsh and the Randall Twins in the 1990's.