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Tuesday, October 29, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Atheist Scout fights decision to boot him

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Chief Seattle Council of the Boy Scouts has given Eagle Scout Darrell Lambert about a week to decide "in his heart" if he's truly an atheist. If he insists on sticking to his belief that there is no God, the Council will terminate his membership.

"No way" is he going to change his beliefs, says Lambert, who has been in scouting since he was 9 years old. "It'd be like me asking them to change their belief. It's not going to happen."

His beliefs, if unchanged, give the Scouts no choice, says Brad Farmer, council's Scout executive in Seattle.

In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Boy Scouts' right as a private organization to ban certain members. The Scouts exclude atheists and gays.

The 19-year-old has earned 37 merit badges, been a quartermaster and three-time senior patrol leader, and now he's an assistant Scoutmaster and a field leader in training as part of the Search and Rescue Program. In his senior year in high school, he racked up more than 1,000 hours of community service.

He doesn't believe in smoking or taking illegal drugs. His mom offered to take him out for a drink when he turns 21. But he doesn't believe in drinking alcohol.

And he doesn't believe in God — not since the ninth grade. And even before then he was unsure.

"You need to have a recognition of a supreme being," said Farmer. "We as the Boy Scouts do not define what that is, but you need to have a recognition."

Every Boy Scout and adult leader must attest to that belief on an application in order to join. It can be part of subscribing to a structured religion — such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam or Hinduism — or a more amorphous faith in some presence greater than ourselves, Farmer explained.

The issue has garnered national attention over the years. In 1998, 16-year-old twins Michael and William Randall, who refused to take an oath to God, won a seven-year legal battle with the council in Orange County, Calif., and were awarded Eagle badges, Scouting's top award.

Whether Lambert will be allowed to stay remains in doubt, but last night he explained his predicament to the parents of the kids in his Port Orchard troop, Troop 1531. He laid out the choices and asked for their support.

His mom, who is Scoutmaster, and his dad stood by his side. He told the parents that the troop could watch him get kicked out, which he said he would regret because "I couldn't teach merit badges, which is something I absolutely love to do." Or, he said, they could stand up to the Boy Scout Council and say, "It's wrong."

But, he told them, the troop's charter could be at stake.

The parents were crowded into a back room in the basement of a chapel at the Washington Veterans' Home in Retsil, Kitsap County, while their children celebrated Halloween. They asked him questions and came to his defense.

"Did your belief change some time when you were going up?" asked one mom.

"I don't see where religious beliefs come into play when we teach them to camp" said another.

In a down-to-earth way, they brought up God and country and standing up for what's right.

Lambert said, "The way I want to see the Boy Scouts change is to take membership laws away from national and return them back to the individual units."

One parent said, "He's willing to take care of our boys, our land, he goes and rescues our people. What more could the Boy Scouts want."

If worst came to worst, they could join Campfire Boys and Girls, Lambert said.

In the end, the parents decided to draft a letter that each of them could sign if they wanted. In addition, they can send their individual thoughts to the council. Their sentiments seemed to be overwhelmingly in support of Lambert.

At least one parent voiced serious concern about not following Boy Scout law.

But others spoke strongly in support of his cause.

If it comes down to losing their charter, one mother said, "Loyalty is one of the oaths of the Scouts, and we've known Darrell for a long time, so it comes down to loyalty to Darrell."

Said parent Joanne Warren, "Darryl walks the walk of Christ; whether he professes it or not, he walks it."

"I think the only power higher than myself is the power of all of us combined," Lambert said. "The interactions we do affect each others' lives. We're all in symbiosis with each other. But other than that, there's no higher power governing what I do."

Lambert's mom, Trish, believes in God, but doesn't go to church. It was hard at first when her son told her about his atheism. But ultimately, "I didn't see where that changed the way he was as a person. It's his choice. I've never pushed anything on my kids."

Lambert's atheism came to light earlier this month at a training session on Scouting's outdoor skills. The talk turned to the kind of faith service a Scout might conduct privately while in the woods.

Lambert, who's learning to be a leader, pronounced himself an atheist, and those comments were relayed up the ranks.

"It's his choice. We certainly respect his opinion and his right to choose to believe as he believes," Farmer said. "We only ask those who disagree with the Boy Scouts to show us the same respect."

Lambert claims that he first professed his atheism last year to the review board that gave him the Eagle Scout award, which is the highest rank in Boy Scouting.

"I wanted them to know everything there is. I didn't want to lie."

The board still gave him the award and "praised me for my honesty and courage," says Lambert. Last night, some parents also praised his forthrightness.

Farmer said he knew nothing of this, but if Lambert were questioned before being awarded the Eagle Scout badge, he'd still have to meet Scouting's standards.

Since the Supreme Court decision, many Cub packs and Scout troops across the country have refused to endorse the national policy regarding gays, according to Scouting for All, a group trying to change Scouting's ban on gays.

Some units have been kicked out or have resigned.

Lambert's stand on atheism "has the potential of sparking some really good healing and change that needs to happen within the Boy Scouts," said Scott Cozza, president of Scouting for All, a group trying to change scouting's policy of banning gays.

People who may be homophobic "will be more willing to stand behind an atheist kid rather than a gay kid," said Cozza. "There are hundreds of Darrells in every Scout council around the country — good, decent kids and adults."

Farmer said Lambert is welcome to be part of the so-called "Exploring" program. Exploring is part of Learning for Life, a Boy Scout subsidiary, run by a separate board and which doesn't have the same membership standards as traditional scouting.

Marsha King: 206-464-2232 or mking@seattletimes.com

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