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American Atheists Protest BSA Policies in Orange County
By Dave Kong

On May 9, American Atheists of California joined forces with a variety of southern California Atheist and humanist groups at the Orange County Scout-a-Rama to demonstrate against the Boy Scouts’ official policy of excluding Atheists and gays from participation in scouting activities. Coordinated by the Rational Inquirers of Orange County and the Center for Inquiry - West, it was an unprecedented cooperative effort among California groups, and an important move forward for the state’s Atheist movement.

Orange County is home to the Randall twins, two agnostic scouts who had filed a lawsuit against the BSA’s discriminatory policies. Earlier this year, the California Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts of America is a private organization, which means that it is free to associate with - and discriminate against - anyone it chooses. For these reasons, the annual county Scout-a-Rama was picked as the appropriate time and place for the collective Atheist voice to be heard.

The purposes of the protest were straightforward:

  • To urge the scouts to voluntarily change their policies

  • To demand that all public subsidies and support of scouting programs be withdrawn if the scouts do not lift their ban on gays and Atheists, that the U.S. Congress withdraw the BSA’s charter status, and that President Clinton resign as honorary head of the Boy Scouts

  • To provoke discussion among the parents, leaders, and the scouts (many of the scouts do not even know what an atheist is)

  • To let the scouts, media, and general public know that there is an Atheist community, and that we will no longer remain silent and allow ourselves to be slandered, excluded or marginalized

Protesters began arriving at Mile Square Regional Park around 9:00 a.m. American Atheists arrived with a variety of picket signs, including “No Discrimination Against Atheists!” “Discrimination is Un-American,” “I Earned my Merit Badge in Reason,” “No public funds for private discrimination,” and “BSA Policies are just ‘BS’.”

There were approximately 35 protesters total from the combined groups. We split up into two main groups: one covered the entrance to the scouting area, the other was posted at the exit. In spite of our relatively small numbers, we apparently achieved the desired effect - one newspaper reported that Atheists “swarmed” the park.

Early protesters pause for a photo, including American Atheists web columnist “Gentleman Jim Heldberg” (far right).

Most of the protesters came from the southern California region, including members Stuart Beckman, Edith James and Al Griffin, to name just a few. A small contingent including Jim Heldberg, Ski Grabowsky, and myself came down from San Francisco. A number of the protesters were not affiliated with any group, but had heard about the protest and wanted to show their support. Surprisingly, no gay organizations joined in the protest. The one exception was a very impressive high school senior from Los Alamitos named Fred Peters, who had founded both an Atheist group and a gay organization in his high school.

Protesters at the entrance reported that the response they had received was not positive. However, at the exit, where the main American Atheists contingent was stationed, we received a mixed reaction, with an equal - if not greater - number of people expressing their support. This included not only some of the parents, but also a number of the scouts, including the Randall twins. Why we received a different reaction is unclear. It may have been that people felt scrutinized by scout leaders at the entrance, and were afraid to voice their opinions.

While most of the demonstrators left around 1:00, Ski, Jim and I were so pleased with the reaction we were receiving at the exit that we decided to stay longer. We finally left the park slightly after 2:30 and headed home to San Francisco, tired, but exhilarated by the experience.

In closing, I must say that I have been in many protests over the years, and this event in Orange County was without question one of the best. Never before have I seen an Atheist demonstration present such a positive image. We presented ourselves as friendly, reasonable and sincere, worthy of respect and acceptance. Instead of anger, we responded to the court decision with a wonderful show of unity. This is just the beginning of a real atheist movement in California.

Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.