The Gospel according to the Girl Scouts

Jenni Bergal

February 11, 1992|By Jenni Bergal

YOU CAN'T avoid them. They're standing outside shopping centers, office buildings and grocery stores. They're little, sweet and darling and they have that cute way of begging that makes it hard to say no.

The Girl Scouts are back hawking their wares once again.

Normally, when you think of Girl Scouts, you picture these kids selling Thin Mints or roasting marshmallows in front of a campfire.

Pleasant images of young girls giggling and pinning on their badges.

Until now.

The Seattle-based Totem Girl Scout Council has rocked the nation with its plan to change or make optional the portion of the scouting oath that refers to serving God.

Holy Cow!

That's enough to make lots of people angry enough to give back their cookies.

Laurie Stewart, president of the Totem Council, says she can't get over the fury and outrage the proposal has generated.

"We obviously hit a sore spot. It certainly wasn't our intent to create a furor," she says. "Change is tough and traditions are closely held."

It all started last summer when the council was trying to recruit girls from communities in western Washington state.

Scout leaders discovered that the promise's wording -- "On my honor, I will try to serve God and my country" -- actually was a barrier to new membership in several communities.

Southeast Asian immigrants who were Buddhists or Hindus felt the promise expressed a Judeo-Christian concept that wasn't part of their faith.

Native Americans were offended because their vision of a creator is much more complex than the simple word "God."

The council's board investigated and decided not to deny access to girls who refused to recite the oath.

National Girl Scout leaders were furious. They threatened to revoke the Totem Council's membership, saying the promise had to be recited and the local board had no right to alter membership qualifications on its own.

"We're not opposed to change. The point is how that council went about it," says Bonnie McEwan, spokeswoman for the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. in New York.

McEwan says the Seattle group should have taken the matter before the national council, which is the only body that can approve changes in the pledge.

"We were upset," Stewart recalls. "It was a very stern warning from the national organization. They let us know our charter was in jeopardy."

So the Totem Council rescinded its policy statement and set up a task force to look at alternatives. The group is considering several proposals, such as inserting the word "my" in front of God or creating an alternate promise.

Members agreed to take the issue before the national council at its next meeting in 1993.

But that decision fueled even more fire.

The Totem council was bombarded with calls and letters, some supportive, some angry.

One outraged man even wrote to the local paper that the Girl Scouts council was raising "Brides of Satan."

Council members are standing firm so far. They believe scouting is supposed to develop young women's values and self-esteem and that diversity shouldn't be a threat.

Good for them.

I don't know about anyone else, but I was a Girl Scout, and aside from the promise itself, I don't remember any discussion about God.

Mostly, I remember that scouting taught us about leadership, friendship and honesty. And about how to be great cookie salespeople.

Scouting had nothing to do with religion.

It was plain old fun. You won badges for lighting a campfire or doing volunteer work, not for praying.

So why is everyone so offended that girls don't want to take an oath to God? Can't they just pledge to help their country and their families? Why prevent them from experiencing scouting on account of one word?

Aren't people tolerant enough to respect the beliefs of other cultures?

McEwan says Girl Scouts are bound as sisters by a spiritual force. That's well and good, but spirituality isn't the same as religion.

A similar controversy already has been brewing within the Girl Scouts' counterpart organization.

The Boy Scouts of America have been sued by several parents whose children were barred from membership because they were atheists or agnostics who refused to recite the oath to God.

So far, the Girl Scouts haven't had to deal with that problem. Yet.

But it's an issue whose time has come.

American kids these days are faced with so many problems: Crime, drugs, a lousy educational system.

Scouting is a safe haven. The leadership should realize that and open its arms to any boys and girls who want to join, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Jenni Bergal is a columnist for the Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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