Ethical and Inclusive Scouting

It was all over the news last year—the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) changed their policies regarding homosexuality, and now they’re perfectly acceptable for any secular family, right?

Well, not really. The policy change means they will no longer expel non-straight boys from scouting immediately, which is progress. But BSA still requires adult leaders and volunteers to be straight, so it’s only a half measure. Also, “Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God,” a position that applies to all ages and doesn’t seems to be in danger of changing any time soon. Now we’re down to a quarter measure. And just boys?

In 2012, I realized that my boys (then 3 and 5) might soon want to join Cub Scouts, and I wasn’t comfortable with that. What could a family do that wanted to be involved in an outdoor skills and leadership organization but didn’t want to make the ethical compromises necessary to be involved in a group that excludes non-straight adults and non-theists of all ages?

So, with some other families from the Ethical Society of St. Louis, I looked into our options. Fortunately, there are several alternatives. After investigation, we narrowed our list down to two options, and then down to one. Even if you don’t make the same final choice as we did, what we found might be useful as a starting point for your family.

If you are looking for an exact replacement for the BSA, with the history, prestige, and resources that the BSA offers, then you will be disappointed. But depending on what you’re looking for, you can find something pretty good:

I want a large group with history, prestige, and resources
In that case, your best bet might be 4-H. It’s not exactly a scouting organization, but it’s nationwide, well-known, and has good resources for groups. Their focus areas are Science, Citizenship, and Healthy Living, which can be a really good foundation for raising an ethical critical thinker.

I want a large scouting group with history, prestige, and resources
Yes, yes. Scouting. Fine, then 4-H doesn’t really fit. The closest fit is probably Camp Fire. Formerly Camp Fire Girls, this is now a co-ed group, and it has history dating back to 1910. While not as big as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, they have the framework, training, and facilities in place that none of the other alternatives here can match. Additionally, their Policy on Inclusion explicitly states that “everyone is welcome.

We ended up not going with Camp Fire for two reasons:

  1. Some of their websites include the phrase “Worship God” as the first entry in the Camp Fire Law. Apparently, the emphasis on this varies from region to region, but our group wasn’t comfortable with it.
  2. Since we were going to be the first Camp Fire group in our area, they wanted us to fully incorporate as a non-profit, with all the legal implications that brings. We weren’t ready for that.

In your case, though, if there already is a Camp Fire Council in your area that takes a position on “Worship God” that you can accept, then Camp Fire might be perfect.

I want to focus on the environment with my little ones
You should definitely check out Earth Champs. A program of EarthCharter, Earth Champs brings a focus on the environment, economic justice, social justice, and peace that is unmatched by the other groups. Earth Champs isn’t big, but there are several groups around the United States. They weren’t a match for us because their programming ends at age 13, but it could be great for a younger crowd. Also, their registration form (Word document) is refreshingly inclusive:

(N)o one who shares a willingness to act in the spirit of the Earth Charter should ever be denied membership in Earth Champs. Also, no one should be denied membership for reasons of ethnicity, spiritual beliefs, gender, appearance, economic class, political views, sexual orientation or physical ability.

I want a pretty website that doesn’t give a good sense that it ever got beyond marketing
Really? Alrighty then. Adventure Scouts will be perfect for you.

My family is Wiccan, and we want to learn about the environment with others like us
SpiralScouts was started by a Wiccan church that created an alternative after BSA declined to recognize Wicca for BSA religion badges. It doesn’t seem very big, but it might be perfect for your niche (though I don’t know how much overlap that niche has with this blog). Membership is “open to all who are willing to take part in this very hands-on organization, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical limitations, or any other similar condition.”

I’m really more interested in hands-on science inspired by Jane Goodall than in camping and hiking
She’s awesome, isn’t she? Anyway, I don’t know how big the group is, but you should check out Roots and Shoots. It’s a great program for environmental protection and for supporting the quality of life of animals and people. Their web site promises to connect “people of every age, race, culture, religion or economic background,” but it does not explicitly mention being inclusive regarding sexual orientation. Fortunately, they confirmed in a phone call that they are maximally inclusive, including for all gender and sexual identities.

Hmmm. . . Science and the environment are great, but we’ve gotten away from scouting, haven’t we?

I love scouting. I want to be hiking and spelunking and setting up camp while wearing the type of uniform that Lord Baden-Powell himself might have worn
Then the Baden-Powell Service Association is perfect for you; this was nearly our group’s selection. BPSA is built on an originalist interpretation of scouting, taking inspiration from the last manual written by the founder of scouting, Lord Robert Baden-Powell. Their aim is to promote good citizenship, discipline, self-reliance, loyalty, and useful skills. But while the uniforms and camping techniques are old school, the policy of inclusion is up-to-date, with openness to everyone. With 45 groups around the country, BPSA is growing fast.

Perhaps more important for some readers, BPSA is led by an atheist, so you know they won’t exclude us any time soon. You can read more about David Atchley’s progression from Eagle Scout to atheist BSA Scoutmaster to outcast to leader of a new scouting organization in an old post on Friendly Atheist.

I want a national scouting organization started by Humanists with Humanist principles at its core
Then you want Navigators USA, the organization we selected. Navigators was started by a New York City-based UU-affiliated Boy Scout troop that was kicked out of BSA because of incompatibilities on religious and sexual discrimination. Navigators has a focus on inclusiveness and diversity, stemming from its history as a group that worked to give inner city kids a chance to experience nature. There are now over 60 chapters in the United States, and they are expanding to the United Kingdom and Uganda.

I think our group could have been successful in several of these organizations, particularly in BPSA, but Navigators’ focus on Humanism and diversity born out of an urban environment made it a better fit for us.

I want a group for any gender, not just boys or girls
In a way, none of this search would have been necessary if the Girl Scouts of the USA were fully gender-inclusive, but that’s not going to happen soon, if ever, and for good reasons. I used to say that the search wouldn’t have had to happen if BSA adopted the Girl Scouts’ policies, making the nation’s biggest group for boys as inclusive as the nation’s biggest group for girls. However, one of the parents in our group pointed out that this left some children without a good option. While we were being interviewed about the Navigators on the Ask an Atheist radio show, Andy Semler mentioned that he, as a genderqueer, never would have been fully accepted and comfortable in either the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts, no matter their policy, simply because Andy wasn’t a boy or a girl.

While Girl Scouts are fantastic in that they accept any child who identifies as and lives culturally as a girl, that still leaves a gap for genderqueer children and for transgender children who identify as boys.

All of these fully gender-inclusive organizations bridge that gap and provide a place for Andy. This isn’t to say there wouldn’t still be issues (registration forms still usually require selecting within the gender binary), but accepting “both” genders can provide a landing place that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

None of these groups is perfect replacement for the BSA, with the prestige and resources it brings. But all of these options are fully inclusive of religious belief, ethnic background, sexual orientation, and gender. These are good alternatives for an ethical secular family.

Featured Image credit: The author, all rights reserved


Lance is the father of two boys, a software developer, and an occasional world traveler. Now an active member of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, he grew up in an Evangelical Lutheran home in which he took Christianity very seriously. Fortunately, going to college helped him break through to see that he believed because he thought he was supposed to, not because it makes sense. Now he's glad to be more than just a SIWOTI skeptic. @LMFinney

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  1. While I am sure those options may help, I would like to present a third option, be in BSA, but just like our state and national laws that have to change, the organization can change, we are active in scouts but also advocate and support, this is the organization that organized around these issues, and in less than 2 years got the BSA to change its policy. Also if you are in a BSA unit sponsored by a more progressive organization such as ours, these issues don’t come up. Do we “bless the food” sometimes at camp. Yes, but we also train our leaders and scouts to be respectful of others and ask people to prepared themselves for the blessing as they see fit, in some cases that means they stand at a respectful distance and wait…no big deal. Are there religious requirements in scouting, yes, are there ways to deal with it, yes…. My humble opinion is there is not replacement for the BSA…

    1. We considered trying to work within the BSA, but our group rejected it because we wanted a gender-inclusive group and because we were not comfortable with the ethical compromises necessary.

      “Also if you are in a BSA unit sponsored by a more progressive organization such as ours, these issues don’t come up.”

      I’m glad to hear that you have seen that flexibility in your area, but not all have seen that. BPSA was started by a scoutmaster who was forced out due to being an atheist, even though his particular group didn’t mind:

      And as an atheist myself, being a leader of and bringing my children into an organization that believes that I cannot “grow into the best kind of citizen” would have been an ethical dilemma for me. Many people have faced that dilemma and have taken different approaches – the ethical compromise was not acceptable for me.

      I hope that Scouts for Equality is successful, and I think pressuring for change from within from is useful. However, I also think that pressure is also brought for change by creating and supporting strong alternatives from the outside.

    2. @HawaiiMom, where are you located? What progressive organization sponsors your local BSA unit? I live in Waipahu and am currently looking at various scouting alternatives for my kids. Some local secular homeschoolers have teamed up and plan on starting a chapter of either BPSA or Navigators USA. However, if there were a viable BSA alternative, some of us might be persuaded to go with that instead. Mahalo!

  2. This becoming a big issue with me and my family. Hubby and Sweetie were both boy scouts, but they wouldn’t be accepted as leaders now, and Pickle is getting really interested. The biggest hurdle that I see right now is none of these groups have a presence in Madison WI, and I’m not sure I have what it takes to start a new chapter.

    1. I understand – starting up a group can be daunting.

      For the group I’m in, I was very fortunate that we had some parents who had been BSA and GS leaders previously, so they had a lot of the skills and experience – I’ve been involved more on the administrative side.

      There aren’t any Navigators groups in Wisconsin, but I looked for BPSA (, and there are five other families in the Madison area who are interested in the BPSA. Maybe there’s enough critical mass to share the load.

  3. It may be important to note that 4-H is a little bit different from the rest in that it is government funded. That provides a certain level of protection in that they are bound to the general non-discrimination rules that apply to any government organization. Also of note is that while 7% of Boy Scouts will get their Eagle Badge, less than 1% of 4-Hers ever get the “All-Star” designation. 4-H roots may come from agriculture but they have really branched out in recent years to develop programs more relevant to city or suburban youth.

    It’s been a wonderful experience for our daughter.

  4. How has it gone?? Sorry, I am mobile at the moment and didn’t venture beyond this page on your site. Did you start with your young kids?? I have a 4 year old that I would love to start as a Navigator but the age suggestion has me iffy.

    1. Our Chapter started out with a “Stargazers” group for kids younger than the Navigators starting age (which was 6 or 7 at the time). However, Navigators has moved the starting age for Junior Navigators to 5, and we found that having 2-3 year olds was just too disruptive to the lessons we were trying to teach. So, we now have 5 as our starting age, with an exception for little ones with a bigger sibling in the group.

      But overall, it’s going pretty well. We’ve had three campouts this year – at a cabin in February, a National Forest in May, and a State Park in June. We’ve had 8-16 kids at each one (20-35 people total), and the new badge system that Navigators is creating is working well.

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