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Catholic Scouts shun lawmakers over ideas

The Baltimore Sun

The pastor of a Catholic church in Parkville has barred the parish's Boy Scout troop from associating with elected officials who do not support Catholic moral teaching.

Monsignor James P. Farmer, who came to St. Ursula Catholic Church last year, has told Boy Scout Troop 26 that it cannot let elected officials who supported stem cell research legislation participate in Eagle Scout award ceremonies, nor can the troop visit the legislators at their offices at the State House.

"We were told that no elected official could participate that did not have a record of being pro-life," said Doug Marquess, the troop's former committee chairman, who was asked to step down last month after serving three years because of his objections.

The decision has sparked frustration among some members of the troop - and has prompted the Archdiocese of Baltimore to begin considering how the guidelines should be applied.

"This issue just doesn't belong with the kids," Marquess said. "This is about the kids learning to be good citizens and having fun."

This isn't the first time the Boy Scouts of America has found itself at the center of debates with roots in politics and religion. For example, the Boy Scouts prohibited gay and lesbian scoutmasters.

Leaders of major Christian denominations opposed their inclusion and the Supreme Court ultimately ruled against their hiring in 2000.

"I doubt that the founders of the Boy Scouts in America thought of the organization as a way to influence the behavior of politicians," said Clifford Wallace Putney, a history lecturer at Bentley College in Massachusetts who has studied the origins of the Boy Scouts in the United States.

At St. Ursula, committee member Mary Lee Jones, who is Catholic, said she can see both sides of the situation. However, "this is a Boy Scout issue, and the religion should be kept out of it," she said.

"I don't think those officials come to our troop meetings and our Scout ceremonies to publicize their views on abortion."

State Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier and Del. Eric M. Bromwell, both Catholics and Democrats who represent the area, were both no longer invited to these events and said they are trying to forge a compromise with the Maryland Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Farmer, who became pastor of St. Ursula's last year, declined to comment, according to archdiocesan spokesman Sean Caine.

Caine pointed to Catholics in Political Life, a 2004 document published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, that states that Catholics "should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions."

The archdiocese is discussing forming a committee to examine this issue, especially how it might affect Boy Scout troops at parishes, Caine said.

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center, said similar types of conflicts often arise during commencement season.

For example, Cardinal William H. Keeler did not attend graduation at Loyola College in Maryland in 2005 when the Catholic institution invited former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani to speak and receive an honorary degree. Groups that oppose abortion planned protests of the event.

Parents say the prohibition has not been uniformly imposed. For example, children attending St. Ursula's school wrote to their legislators, including Bromwell and Klausmeier, to support state funding of private school textbooks.

"It's expected that our pastors would enforce all the guidelines and the teachings of the church," Caine said.

"The intent of the guideline is that we express all church teachings clearly and consistently. That does not mean we cannot engage, communicate and dialogue with public officials."

Klausmeier received a letter last summer from the troop stating she was no longer allowed to come and give Eagle Scouts an award and a Maryland flag flown over the Statehouse, as she has done many times during her 13 years in office.

"Needless to say I was very upset," she said. "The boys are good kids, and I don't do any politicking by any means."

Bromwell, a graduate of Calvert Hall College High School in Towson, said his record includes support for issues close to the Catholic church's views, such as parental notification before abortion.

"I don't feel that politics should really have anything to do with support of the Boy Scouts," the delegate said. "To be told we're no longer welcome is really disconcerting."

He and other elected officials jump at the chance to attend Eagle Scout ceremonies and other events, he said, and they also give tours of the Statehouse to Boy Scouts earning citizenship badges.

Neither he nor Klausmeier was aware of other parishes enforcing similar restrictions, nor do they know other legislators who have been affected. They learned of the parish's stance through parents.

"I've obviously had lobbyists from the [Maryland] Catholic Conference come to lobby me on those issues," Bromwell said. "At the same time, nobody said if you vote for this, you're no longer welcome."

Caine said that Farmer and other archdiocesan officials tried to contact Klausmeier to discuss this policy, especially after the state senator addressed an Eagle Scout ceremony she was attending as a personal guest of the recipient.

Parents of youths in the parish troop were then told that guest lists would have to be approved in advance if they sought to include elected officials, Marquess said.

Caine said elected officials were welcome to attend events as guests, seated in the audience, but could not participate.

"This is not a personal attack. This is not something that is done in a mean-spirited way, but is an attempt to be consistent and clear with respect to church teaching," Caine said.

The Boy Scouts uphold the decision of the pastor, saying that the church - as the chartering organization - is allowed to set its own policies, said James Milham, the Baltimore Area Council's director of field service.

For example, Jewish troops don't camp on Saturdays, and Mormon troops don't camp on Sundays.

"We franchise our scouting programs to a church or PTA or fire department," Milham said. "It's their program, and basically within the charter agreements they have the right to restrict when it comes to people participating. If that's the church's belief, we have to honor that."

Although Troop 26 is chartered by St. Ursula's, anywhere from a quarter to a third of the 52 scouts are non-Catholic, Marquess estimated.

Catholic organizations sponsor about 100 of the approximately 880 units of the Baltimore area council of the Boy Scouts of America, which includes the city of Baltimore and the five surrounding counties, Milham said.

Most large Christian denominations hold charters for Boy Scout troops, Milham said.

Nationally, about a third of U.S. parishes have scouting, with more than 330,000 children and young men involved in Catholic-sponsored groups, according to the Boy Scouts' Web site.

Marquess, St. Ursula's former committee chairman, said the church provides space to meet and storage for the troop's camping equipment. Charter partners also have final say over troop leadership, Milham said.

Caine said Marquess was asked to step down because of his actions in response to the policy.

Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington, said decisions about invitations are made at the local level and vary among parishes. All politicians receive invitations to tour schools during Catholic Schools Week, for example.

"We're part of the community," she said. "We also want to be clear what we stand for, and that it's important to us."

Putney, of Bentley College, wrote in an e-mail that several Christian groups brought scouting to the United States from England in 1910, particularly the YMCA, then an evanglical Christian organization that wanted to reach young boys.

Although 80 percent of troops in 1915 were led by major Protestant Christian groups, now more Catholic and Mormon groups provide institutional support, he said.

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