Next In The Boy Scouts’ Discrimination Crosshairs: Obesity

The Boy Scouts of America is preventing boys who are obese from participating in their national jamboree.
By @FrederickReese |
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    From July 15 to July 24, the Boy Scouts are holding their once-every-four-years jamboree at Summit Bechtel Reserve in southern West Virginia. As described by the Jamboree’s website, “the national jamboree is a chance to camp out with friends, meet new friends, try high-adventure activities, learn new skills, and enjoy the outdoors. Over 10 days, there are exhibits, stadium shows with entertainment, opportunities to work on merit badges — there’s something for everybody.”

    Well, maybe not everybody. The Boy Scouts has instituted a screen to prevent boys who are obese from participating in the jamboree. Citing a ban on personal transports and buses at the site, the Boy Scouts argue that the policy is meant to prevent those unable to fully participate from hurting themselves on the “challenging terrain at the Summit.”

    “While a lot of the site is level, there are regular changes in grade as part of everyone’s daily schedule,” the Jamboree’s terms stated. “The Staff Village, for example, is 200 feet higher than Twelve Points, the flag plaza in the Summit Center; staff will make that hike, or one that is similar, at least once and probably twice every day, and participants will be hiking even more. A number of our activities require more stamina and fitness too — think climbing, rappelling, rafting, mountain biking, and skateboarding. It is essential that all participants and staff are prepared for their Summit jamboree experience.

    “Obesity and being overweight have been shown to increase the likelihood of certain diseases and other health problems: hypertension, heart attack, dyslipidemia, and stroke. Anyone who is obese and has multiple risk factors for cardiovascular/cardiopulmonary disease would be at much greater risk of an acute cardiovascular/cardiopulmonary event imposed on them by the environmental stresses of the Summit. Our goal is to prevent any serious health-related event from occurring, and ensuring that all of our participants and staff are ‘physically strong.’”

    The Boy Scouts will screen and review any applicant that has a body mass index of 32 or greater for clearance to participate, while reserving the right to exclude any participant under the 32 BMI limit from full participation. Based on health history, submitted health data and the recommendation of the applicant’s primary health care provider, the jamboree’s medical staff will make individual determinations for anyone between 32 and 40 BMI — with automatic exclusion for anyone over 40.


    Debt at the cost of discrimination

    The 10,600-acre Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve was constructed as a showpiece in order to drum up financial support after a massive, long-term drop in membership sparked by controversy over the Boy Scouts’ discriminatory practices, multiple costly sexual-abuse lawsuits and confusion and dissent over the role of women and girls in the organization. The National Scout Reserve offers more than 5 miles of zip lines, a whitewater-rafting circuit, a stadium for 85,000 people and a 120-foot tree house. Formerly a coal excavation site, the land was purchased with funds obtained from a $50 million donation from the Bechtel family. Due to its former life as a coal quarry, the summit has both mechanically flattened fields and sharp excavated gorges.

    The Boy Scouts hope the National Scout Reserve will raise more money than it needs in construction and operation costs.

    “The Summit gives us the opportunity to reintroduce ourselves to America and raise $1 billion for the best youth development in the world,” said a slide from a June 2010 presentation on the project.

    It hasn’t worked out that way. By the end of 2015, cost of the reserve is expected to exceed $439 million. Boy Scouts of America is $108 million behind its capital-raising goal as of the end of March. The organization has an endowment of $274 million.

    Many of the organization’s sponsors are refusing to support financially an organization that is openly discriminatory. The organization’s position allowing gay scouts but not gay leaders has infuriated many. Conservatives have threatened to splinter off and form their own group while liberals are enforcing open-admission policies locally.


    Caught between a rock and a hard place

    With a national membership nearly half the level of its peak in 1972, the Boy Scouts are in dire straits. The group has doubled its borrowing by means of local government-conduiting, which allows an organization to issue tax-exempt municipal bonds. The summit project was largely seen as bold attempt to resuscitate the century-old organization, which has been accused of not keeping up with the times.  While the organization still has enough “cash in hand” to cover three years of operations, spending is growing at a faster rate than revenues.

    A large part of the Boy Scouts’ problem is the controversial Supreme Court ruling Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, which ruled that private organizations have the right to limit their membership as they deem fit. Since then, the Boy Scouts have openly defended the anti-homosexual policy, causing the national organization and local chapters to lose supporters. In Los Angeles, the local council ran a $3.25 million deficit in 2011.

    “It’s like spending your IRA to pay your bills, because you don’t have a job anymore,” said John Harbison, a former president of the Los Angeles Council. “That’s obviously not a sustainable model.”

    Scouts spokesman Deron Smith said it’s too early to know the net effect from the sponsors’ withdrawal.

    “We are aware of some donors withdrawing support of Scouting, but there have also been former donors now making contributions,” he said.

    The Scouts’ financial situation will likely get worse before it get better. A bill pending in the California State Legislature would revoke tax exemptions from youth groups that discriminate based on sexuality. A similar bill has been proposed in New York.

    Boy Scouts of America has had a long history of discrimination. Initial objections to the admission of girls into scouting led to the creation of a separate organization in the United States, the Camp Fire Girls. An independent movement, the Girl Scouts of the USA, eventually developed to counter the Boy Scouts’ rejection of girls.

    As recently as 1991, the Nevada Council of the Boy Scouts of America ejected girls elected into a local chapter based on the national organization’s charter. The American Civil Liberties Union was asked to intervene but declined. Since the 1970s, Boy Scouts of America has fought a litany of lawsuits prohibiting the enrollment of atheists, girls and homosexuals into its ranks.

    However, it may be impossible for the Boy Scouts of America to change. In large part, the organization now depends on the support of parents that enrolled their children in scouting because of its narrow philosophy. On July 9, a coalition of scout leaders and parents announced the formation of an alternative scouting organization — yet to be named — in rejection of the Boy Scouts’ acceptance of gay scouts.

    “The new program will be an exciting and motivating outdoor-based program focused on leadership and character development for boys, and founded on principles and values that reflect a Christian worldview,” read the new organization’s website. “It will be open to all boys irrespective of race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin. Parents from all faiths are welcome to place their children in the program. While boys may come from every religious background, adult leaders in the program – from the National Board level to individual unit volunteers – will adhere to a standard statement of Christian faith and values.”

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