Heavens! Seattle Girl Scout leaders challenge traditional oath of serving God


"On my honor, I will try to serve God and my country, to help others at all times, and to live by the Girl Scout Law."

-- Girl Scouts of

the U.S.A. promise SEATTLE -- Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche sparked a furor more than 100 years ago when he declared that God is dead. Now, some local Girl Scout leaders want to declare God optional.

Their efforts have sparked a 1990s flurry that may embroil Girl Scout councils nationwide.

Leaders of the Seattle-based Totem Girl Scout Council are proposing to change or make optional the part of the Girl Scout promise in which girls pledge "to serve God." The council represents 16,000 Scouts and 6,000 adult volunteers in western Washington.

Having been rebuffed already in an effort to change the pledge just for their council, the Totem leaders are taking their case nationwide. Letters have been sent to councils in every major city asking support for such a change at the next national Girl Scout meeting in 1993.

Laurie Stewart, president of the Totem board of directors, said the council began to examine the promise last year, after the Boy Scouts of America was sued by parents of three would-be Cub Scouts turned away for being atheists. Those lawsuits have not been settled.

About the same time, she said, the local council was making a special effort to reach out to communities, such as Native American tribes and Southeast Asian immigrants, that haven't had many Girl Scouts in the past.

"We want to serve as many girls as possible and encourage diversity," Ms. Stewart said, "and we believe reciting the promise may be a barrier for some girls."

No specific complaint prodded the council to re-examine the promise, Ms. Stewart said.

But the effort to alter the 80-year-old Girl Scout promise has brought some angry local troop leaders to respond with their own proposal: Leave the promise alone.

"Why do we have to change to accommodate everybody?" asked Lisa Tracy, who leads a troop of 5- and 6-year-old Daisy Girl Scouts in nearby Redmond.

Ms. Tracy said she and some other troop leaders may leave if the organization changes the promise or makes a pledge to God optional.

Girls must recite the promise when they become members and whenever they rise from one rank to the next. Some troops also recite it at the start of every meeting.

The Seattle-based council, which moved with no media attention last July to make the promise optional in the region, also has opposition from the national organization.

"One council out of 333 can't just make this unilateral decision to junk the Girl Scout promise," said Bonnie McEwan, a spokeswoman for Girl Scouts of the U.S.A., headquartered in New York City. If the Totem board wanted a change, she said, it would have to seek an amendment to the Girl Scout constitution at the next national council meeting.

Under pressure and protest, the Totem council rescinded its decision in August and began drafting a proposed constitutional amendment.

4 For now, reciting the promise remains mandatory.

"Girl Scouting is not Girl Scouting without that commitment," said Ms. McEwan. "If a girl doesn't feel she can make that promise, she doesn't have to join."

But Carol Cooper, who has two daughters in Brownies and Cadet Girl Scouts troops she leads in Sequim, Wash., disagrees.

"I don't think it's fair to exclude girls who don't identify that power as their personal savior," she said.

Ms. Cooper, a member of the Makah Indian tribe, has joined the Totem council task force in drawing up the proposed constitutional change. She says her Native American belief in a higher spiritual power is not the same as the Christian God to which she feels the promise refers.

But Ms. McEwan said, "Many members of the Girl Scouts are Native Americans, Buddhists or Hindus who don't have any problem with the promise. As far as saying God is a Judeo-Christian concept, I don't know where that comes from."

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