WASHINGTON — The culture wars in this country have grown so acute that we can’t even agree to support a patriotic, faith-affirming, achievement-oriented group like the Girl Scouts.
I smile when girls from the local troop stand nervously on my doorstep and ask me to buy Thin Mints and Trefoils. I see the next generation of a treasured institution about to celebrate 100 years of giving girls a chance to hike and camp, learn skills such as gardening and first aid, and build character and leadership.
But some religious conservatives see something very different: representatives of a dangerous, secular organization that aggressively promotes abortion and quietly encourages paganism, homosexuality and other alleged social ailments.
It’s ill-informed nonsense. Nonetheless, it’s spawned a smear campaign against the Girl Scouts that’s starting to have an impact.
Conservative activists have used social media to encourage parents to boycott cookie sales, pull their daughters out of scouts and push churches not to provide meeting spaces for troops.
This month, for the first time in our area, a church bowed to the pressure. St. Timothy Roman Catholic parish in Chantilly in Fairfax County, Va., ousted 12 troops with 115 girls. In Alexandria, Va., St. Rita Catholic Church is reportedly considering doing the same.
At St. Timothy, Rev. Gerald Weymes told Scout leaders that they could no longer use church or parochial school facilities after the current school year. He didn’t offer a public explanation and wasn’t giving interviews.
But the diocese didn’t deny reports that St. Timothy was unhappy with the U.S. Girl Scout organization’s membership in the international girl scouting association, called the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts.
The World Association, which has members in 145 countries, supports access to contraception and is also often accused of backing abortion and being affiliated with Planned Parenthood.
To appreciate the extremity of the church’s action, consider the following: America’s Girl Scouts say explicitly, repeatedly, at the neighborhood, regional and national levels, that they have no stance on birth control or abortion.
No Girl Scout dues or proceeds from cookie sales go to the international group. Rebecca Munro, a spokeswoman for the international association in London, said it has no position on abortion and no relationship with Planned Parenthood.
“Misinformation is passing as fact,” Diane Tipton, president of the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital, said in a recent statement responding to St. Timothy’s move. “The Girl Scout organization does not take a position on abortion or birth control, and these topics are not part of the Girl Scout program or our materials. We believe these matters are best discussed by girls with their families.”
Such avowals haven’t dissuaded the critics. They are convinced the Girl Scouts are secretly promoting abortion under guise of teaching knots and scrapbooking.
That didn’t square with the experience of local Girl Scout adult leaders whom I interviewed.
“I have never come across anything that’s pro-life or pro-choice in any of our council literature or any of our national literature,” said Kathy Sears, a troop adviser and adult trainer who lives in Calvert County, Md.
Another defender of the scouts is the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, a group that ought to have some credibility with Catholics. It’s an official church organization and has been actively investigating — and mostly refuting — the accusations for several years.
The federation’s Web site devotes a page to knocking down rumors. Girl Scouts support Planned Parenthood? “Not true,” the federation says. Girl Scout law does not refer to God anymore? “Not true.”
The federation has some concerns about the international association but thinks that doesn’t justify rejecting American Girl Scouts altogether.
“It’s the whole thing of guilt by association. Does one policy with which you can’t agree prevent you from being involved in broader coalitions? My position is that the only way you can advocate for the church’s position is to be engaged in the dialogue,” said Robert McCarty, the federation’s executive director.
Some Girl Scout leaders in the area wish St. Timothy had adopted a similar, broad-minded attitude.
“I’m not sure that [Rev. Weymes] has made his decision based on any real fact,” said one adult leader from Chantilly, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared alienating the church. “I think it’s unfortunate that somebody makes a decision, and other people assume it’s right and act accordingly, and it kind of snowballs.”
Happily, the controversy doesn’t seem to be hurting this year’s cookie sales. Lidia Soto-Harmon, chief executive of the Washington area council, said initial orders were up more than 6 percent.
I say, let’s all cast a vote for girls with backpacks and against disinformation. When the neighborhood girls ring your doorbell, order an extra couple of boxes.