Chelsea Mosher
When Nancy Powell's son was in first grade, he was approached at his elementary school by Boy Scout recruiters. It is a ritual nearly as old as public schools themselves: They asked him and his friends to join. But that afternoon when he came home from school wearing a band placed around his arm by the recruiters, his mother was furious. According to Powell, she had tried already to place her son in a local Boy Scout troop but had been rejected because the Powell family are atheists.

"I couldn't believe that the school was promoting an organization that my son wasn't welcome in because of our religion," Powell fumed while recently recounting the event to the Mercury. Powell believes that such chumminess between Oregon's public schools and the Boy Scouts violates the constitutional separation of church and state. Now, after years of wading through public school bureaucracy, she is poised to file a lawsuit for discrimination against the state's public schools.

In the recent Dale case, the Scouts have weathered a public scandal after kicking a gay scoutmaster out of a troop in New Jersey. In reaction, over the past year many major donors have withdrawn funding and several cities have banned the Scouts from using public parks. Coming on the heels of such notoriety, Powell's lawsuit could further drive a wedge between the Scouts and public support. Moreover, if successful, the suit could establish a wide-reaching protocol that could cripple recruitment efforts by the Boy Scouts and further damage their reputation.

Belief in God is a central tenet of the Boy Scout oath and Larry Otto, president of the Oregon Chapter of Boy Scouts, candidly admits that they do not welcome children from atheist families. "If the parent of the child cannot recognize a belief in God on their application form, then no, they would not be welcome in the Boy Scouts," he explained. Though Otto says he never actually spoke with Powell, she says he was very explicit about the reason her son wasn't welcome, explaining that a religious belief had to be in a god.

After being approached in the first grade--and in spite of objections from Powell--the recruitment of her son continued throughout the next few years. Letters were sent from the Scouts to their home and there were more visits by recruiters to her son's school. Fed up, Powell convinced the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to handle her complaint.

The case began three years ago but has taken all this time simply to churn through the school system's bureaucracy. But now that it has passed those hurdles, the complaint can be filed as an official lawsuit in state court. Within the next two weeks, the debate whether Boy Scouts should be allowed in schools will finally reach a major turning point. Ken Wittenberg, one of two ACLU lawyers working on the case, will file in Multnomah County Circuit Court a discrimination suit against the school district.

"I'm feeling very good about this case right now," says Powell. "There isn't an individual who I've told about this who doesn't agree with me completely." She adds, "This is a no-brainer."

Because of their legal obligation to exhaust the internal administrative channels of the school system, Powell and Wittenberg began their crusade with a letter to the school's principal and ended, last week, with a 12-page, condescending statement from Stan Bunn, the state-wide Superintendent of Public Instruction.

At all junctions, the school district has approved the Scouts' continued recruitment in the schools. Superintendent Bunn's report, issued February 13, justifies the Scouts' recruitment by implying that they are a "community organization" and therefore immune to the state laws that prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion.

"Bunn makes the implication that because this is a 'community' organization, it's incapable of discrimination," says Wittenburg. "That's ludicrous."

Yet, as Wittenberg points out, the Supreme Court just recently determined that the Boy Scouts are a religious organization. In the Dale case, five Justices determined that the Scouts are a private, religious organization and therefore can exclude homosexuals if that lifestyle is counter to the Scouts' philosophy and beliefs.

"The Dale case established that the Boy Scouts want to be a private, discriminatory organization, and that's fine," says Wittenberg. But, explains Wittenberg, while a legal classification as a private religious organization allows certain freedoms, it also carries the burden that they must remain separate from public institutions, like schools.

When the Mercury called Bunn's office, Larry Austin, Bunn's head of communications, said that he was unaware of Bunn's recent decision, despite the fact that Bunn had issued the report weeks before. Gregory McMurdo, the Executive Legal Officer for Bunn, didn't return the Mercury's phone call.

Though Wittenberg and Powell feel their case is a clear cut one, it's not surprising that the school district has been so stubborn about continued recruitment in the schools--their relationship with the public schools has been a long-standing tradition. In fact, though the Scouts are not the defendants in the case, they have been paying a portion of the school district's legal fees.

Even though Nancy Powell's son will be attending middle school next year, she plans to continue her battle. "I'm fighting this, because it's wrong." She adds, "How do you tell a crying six-year-old that our kind isn't welcome? I never thought I would have to do that."