CHICAGO (AP) - The Defense Department wants to continue supporting the decades-old National Boy Scout Jamboree because preparing a military base for the event trains soldiers how to deal with displaced people, government attorneys said Thursday.
The government is asking a federal appeals court to overturn a ruling that the Pentagon's support of the jamboree violates the First Amendment because the Scouts require members to swear an oath of duty to God.
The Boy Scouts received about $7 million in support from the Defense Department for the 2005 jamboree. More than 40,000 Boy Scouts attended, pumping an estimated $17 million into the economy in Virginia, where the event is held.
Justice Department attorney Lowell V. Sturgill argued that the military benefits because the jamboree produces conditions similar to those soldiers may face while serving in Iraq or responding to a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina.
It also is an effective recruiting tool, Sturgill said.
"Any group can request similar support. And if they can provide the same bang for the buck they'll get it," he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union contends that the gathering amounts to a government-sponsored religious event.
"This appeal is about a special pot of government money that cannot be enjoyed by people who don't believe in God," ACLU attorney Adam Schwartz told the three-member panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Scouts from across the country gather at the Army's Fort A.P. Hill in Bowling Green, Va., typically every four years for the jamboree a 10-day outing where the boys participate in canoeing, fishing, scuba diving and other activities.
If the lower court's ruling is upheld, it could signal the end of a longtime partnership between the Boy Scouts and the military, which has provided logistical support for the jamboree since its inception in 1937.
The next jamboree is planned for 2010 to coincide with the organization's 100th anniversary.
The legal fight stems from a lawsuit filed in 1999 by the ACLU on behalf of two Chicago-area religious leaders.
"I believe very strongly that this is an exclusionary opportunity that the Pentagon gives to the Boy Scouts and that the Boy Scouts are indeed a religious organization," said Eugene Winkler, a retired Methodist pastor who is one of the plaintiffs. "Before a scout can pitch a first tent or tie a first knot, they have to say they believe in God."
The Boy Scouts organization is not directly involved in the litigation, but says scouts are not required to pray or attend church at the jamboree.
George Davidson, an attorney for the Boy Scouts, acknowledges that belief in God is required of its members, but said the scouts represent a variety of denominations and faiths.
"If you want to join the Boy Scouts you have to take the oath of admission," Davidson said. "If you want to put the uniform on you have to stand for what the uniform stands for. It's as simple as that."
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