In 2012, both the Scout Association and Girlguiding UK announced that they would change their Promises to enable non-religious young people and adult volunteers to join for the first time. In the past it had been a requirement for all scouts and guides to ‘do my duty to God’, or to ‘love God’ – Promises that those who do not believe in God cannot make.
We were delighted to be chosen by both organisations to work as their non-religious partner group in seeing the changes through to completion. Girlguiding UK removed any religious reference from their Promise in October 2013, while the Scout Association introduced a secular alternative at the start of 2014.
Although they describe themselves as inclusive organisations, and receive large amounts of public funds, the Scout Association and Girlguiding UK both had membership criteria that specifically excluded the non-religious from admission into their organisations, whether as children wishing to be members or as adults wishing to work or volunteer with them. No other group was excluded from the Scouts and Guides on religion or belief grounds and the British Humanist Association believed this to be unfair and discriminatory.
Humanists were not permitted to omit the portion of the membership oath where the scout or guide swore loyalty to god, meaning either making a hypocritical and dishonest statement or being refused full membership. While there are other secular organisations that did not discriminate, in many areas the Scouts and Guides are the only youth groups available.
What we did
This discrimination by the Scouts and Guides was one of the most common reasons why people contact us for advice, and we approached the Scout and Guide Associations many times over the years to protest at these unfair and discriminatory policies, with no success so far.
These groups had always historically excluded the non-religious, and since 2006 were allowed to do this because they were granted an exemption from equalities legislation, first granted in the Equality Act 2006 and then again in the Equality Act 2010, allowing them to continue to require their members make a religious promise when joining. During the passage of the two Bills through Parliament, the BHA led the campaign to introduce amendments which removed the exemptions, working with the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group of over 100 MPs and peers and most recently triggering debate at the 2010 Act’s House of Commons Committee Stage.
On 4 December, the Scout Association and Girlguiding UK both announced that they are consulting on changing their membership pledges to be inclusive to the non-religious. We welcomed the announcements and encouraged people to respond to the consultations. Both groups decided to work exclusively with the BHA as their non-religious partner organisation to see the changes implemented.
In June 2013, Girlguiding UK announced that it had decided to scrap religious versions of the Promise entirely, which it did in September. In October the Scout Association announced that it would introduce a secular alternative to its standard Promise, for non-religious people. It did so in January 2014.
We believe that this means that the relevant section of equality law, which was specifically written to allow the Scouts and Guides to continue to discriminate in this way, can now be repealed.
Problems do still exist with other youth groups. For example, the armed forces youth organisations do not all allow a non-religious oath, in spite of being part of the state and so being legally obliged to. In January 2013, following representations from Defence Humanists and the BHA, the Air Cadets announced that it would allow such an oath for the first time.
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