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Senate majority leader, a former Eagle Scout, does a good turn for the Boy Scouts

WASHINGTON—Some former Boy Scouts in Congress last week fought back against a lawsuit settlement that had forced federal agencies to stop sponsoring scout troops because their members must pledge to do their duty to God.

The settlement, reached with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois in November, restricted the scouts' use of the Defense Department's military facilities and barred military personnel from helping with scouting activities while on the government clock.

Still up in the air because parts of the ACLU's suit are still pending is whether the military can continue to spend $2 million annually to provide support services to scouting events such as jamborees. They're often held on military property and include the military's provision of tents, latrines, water and other utilities.

Tennessee Eagle Scout Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, on Wednesday introduced the Save Our Scouts Act of 2005, which would overturn the ACLU settlement, restore the government's support and guarantee that it isn't cut in the future.

The bill would also affect the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which gets involved with troops based in HUD-sponsored public housing and was a party to the Illinois suit.

Roughly 40 U.S. senators are scouting alumni, according to Frist's office, as are 150 members of the House of Representatives, where a measure identical to Frist's is pending. Nationwide, 3.2 million youths and 1.2 million adults participate in scouting.

Frist said his bill would allow scouting "to fulfill its mission without the distraction of defending itself against senseless attacks."

ACLU senior lobbyist Terri Schroeder declined to comment on Frist's bill because ACLU lawyers haven't determined what effects, if any, it would have on the case.

"It doesn't matter to people like Senator Frist if (the Boy Scouts of America) is or isn't a discriminatory group, but it does matter to us," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington.

"When they start to get official sanction by the Army, an official branch of the U.S. government, then it's not okay that they discriminate in this fashion" against youths who don't believe in God, Lynn said.

The Scout Oath states, in part, "On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country."

The Scout Law states, in part: "A Scout is reverent toward God. He is faithful to his religious duties. He respects the beliefs of others."

Court battles over the relationship between the Scouts and the government are 30 years old and have proved costly, said Gregg Shields, a spokesman for the Boy Scouts of America, which is based in Irving, Texas. He couldn't say how much the Illinois litigation, which has been under way since 1999, has cost, but he said there was much at stake.

"We have a great deal to lose (such as) access to public property and public venues," Shields said. "We see these as our constitutional rights as citizens and we are simply asking for the same access and treatment as any other organization. To have it clear in law would help us with that."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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