St louis girl scout cookies

Does the church need the Girl Scouts?

Does Girl Scouting prepare girls to be the kind of women the world and church need?

By Cait Peterson, a proud former Girl Scout and current writer and graphic designer living in Utah.

Please take the survey that follows this essay.

“On my honor, I will try: To serve God and my country, To help people at all times, And to live by the Girl Scout Law.”

I was eight the first time I recited those words and, three decades later, they still come easily and evoke a sense of confidence and fellowship. As a child, a teenager, and later an adult, I found my membership in the Girl Scouts to be the perfect complement to my faith. To me, those words—and everything associated with them—walk hand-in-hand with Christ’s teachings.

Recently, I was surprised to find that there are some who feel the Girl Scouts and their parent organization WAGGGS (World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts) don’t fall in line with Roman Catholic teachings. Specifically, they take issue with the inclusion of gay and transgender girls within troops, and WAGGGS’ known advocacy for reproductive rights.

As a former Girl Scout, I choose to disagree.

The Girl Scouts have always been known for inclusivity. Being a member was never about who you were, who your parents were, what you believed, or where you lived. It was about who you wanted to be. A better person. A better steward. For me (and many others I knew), a better child of God. In my experience, Girl Scouting helps prepare girls to be the kind of responsible, responsive, ethical women that the world and the church both need.

While the scouts have always been a secular organization, they’ve also had a long-standing relationship with faith—and the Catholic Church in particular. It’s right there in the Girl Scout Promise. “On my honor, I will try: To serve God and my country…” In fact, it’s the first thing. For a secular organization, one that welcomes girls of all (or no) religion, that’s a huge statement.

In an age where most people are pushing faith away, the Girl Scouts proudly acknowledge their ties to it. They’ve chosen to keep God in their Promise, when even our school systems no longer require students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s a conscious choice to include faith, a choice that speaks not only of acceptance, but also to the greater tenets they both teach and practice. Tenets that are nothing if not Christ-like.

I will do my best to be
honest and fair,
friendly and helpful,
courteous and caring,
courageous and strong, and
responsible for what I say and do,

The first words of the Girl Scout Law—honesty and fairness—are principles I sometimes feel our society has completely forgotten. The first half of the law speaks to how we should treat those around us, without qualification, just as Jesus did when he taught that we should love our neighbor. The message is clear and uncomplicated, unsullied by politics or dogma. Be kind. Treat people well. Have courage. Take responsibility for your behavior. Teachings I think any religion would be proud of. And it continues:

and to
respect myself and others,
respect authority,
use resources wisely,
make the world a better place, and
be a sister to every Girl Scout.

These aren’t just words memorized for a badge and then promptly forgotten. I’ll admit that in nine years as a Girl Scout (and then another 14 working for and teaching with my local council) I never actually memorized the Girl Scout Law. I didn’t have to.

Its principles were taught in every activity, every service project, every meeting, every opportunity to learn responsibility and self-sufficiency, every chance to return the favor or pay forward a kindness. We lived and breathed the law by example, and more than words on paper, that is what the Girl Scouts are about. It’s not cookies and badges. It’s new experiences and expanding worldviews. It’s reaping the benefits of one’s own labor. It’s serving those around you and finding joy in it.

Like the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scout motto is “Be Prepared.” But being prepared isn’t just about being ready for accidents or disasters. The 1947 Girl Scout handbook explains that: “A Girl Scout is ready to help out wherever she is needed. Willingness to serve is not enough; you must know how to do the job well, even in an emergency.”

Then there’s the Girl Scout slogan, unchanged since 1912: “Do a good turn daily.” If you’re sensing a theme here, you’d be right.

Some of the most influential women of the last century—an amazing 64% of the United States’ current female civic, corporate, and political leaders—were Girl Scouts, and many of them have openly spoken about their experiences. These women are spread throughout every field–from science, to politics, to the arts–names we recognize easily because they have done so much.

Laura Bush, former First Lady, is one among many. In fact, almost every First Lady in the last half century was a former Girl Scout. Nicknamed “Comforter in Chief” by the White House staff, Bush has lived a life dedicated to service. As the founder of the Women’s Health and Wellness Initiative, Bush took on both heart disease and breast cancer not just in the U.S., but in the Middle East and beyond.

Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female appointed as a Justice of the Supreme Court, is also a former Girl Scout. A staunch defender of the Constitution and a proponent of civil discussion and critical analysis, O’Connor has long been a role model for girls. Even after her retirement, O’Connor has continued to find ways to teach new generations about government, including her website iCivics.org and the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute (oconnorinstitute.org).

Notable physicist and astronaut Sally Ride—both the youngest astronaut to have traveled in space, and the first female American to do so—was also a Girl Scout. She served on investigative boards for both the Challenger and Columbia disasters and, after leaving NASA, went on to write (or co-write) seven books and found her own company—all aimed at encouraging children and youth, particularly girls, to get involved in science.

And lest I focus solely on the older generation, here’s a much younger former Girl Scout: Taylor Swift. Despite her staggering popularity and youth, Swift has time and again been recognized for her philanthropic efforts. She routinely donates to arts education, local symphonies, and children’s literacy organizations. Swift has also been at the forefront of natural disaster relief efforts, donating both her money and time. She is an outspoken and vocal advocate for giving back and giving to those in need.

The Girl Scouts are not perfect; none of us are. But they teach principles that make stronger, more aware women that complement faith, and ultimately, push girls to strive to make the world a better place. If we have such a problem with their inclusivity that we can’t see that, maybe it’s time to look inward and examine our own motives.

As for me, I stand with the Girl Scouts.

Sounding Boards are one person’s take on a many-sided subject and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.

Flickr photo cc usagrc

As the end of the school year approaches, one diocese has decided to permanently end its long standing affiliation with the Girl Scout organization.

The Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, led by Archbishop Joseph Naumann, released a statement on May 1 “to begin the process of transitioning away from the hosting of parish Girl Scout troops and toward the chartering of American Heritage Girl troops.” This decisive step comes after a decade of diocesan research and dialogue with Girl Scouts of northeastern Kansas and northwestern Missouri and Girl Scouts USA (GSUSA), including detailed concerns shared by the diocese in 2014.

Catholic concerns regarding the Girl Scout organization have been well publicized in recent years, as the gap between the Girl Scout program and the pro-life, pro-family teachings of the Church continues to widen, including Girl Scouts regular promotion of pro-abortion women and organizations, its celebration of the Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same sex marriages, and a fully inclusive policy for boys who self-identify as girls. Troubling examples of these concerns can be found at every level of the organization (local council, GSUSA, and WAGGGS, the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts), and in a variety of programming, including curriculum, on-line resources, social media, and advocacy, prompting the archbishop’s assessment that GSUSA is “no longer a compatible partner in helping us form young women with the virtues and values of the Gospel.”

Cookie sales on parish properties will also be discontinued, as this Girl Scout fundraiser nets GSUSA millions of dollars every year from the licensing fees attached to each box of cookies.

Archbishop Naumann expresses his “appreciation for the many extraordinary Girl Scout leaders of the diocese who have served so well,” while recognizing that the girls’ memberships are counted well beyond their troops. Indeed, WAGGGS, which counts GSUSA as its largest member organization and every registered Girl Scout among its 10 million members, receives funding from GSUSA of over $1 million annually based on the number of registered members. WAGGGS, funded by and on behalf of its 10 million members, regularly advocates for sexual and reproductive rights including abortion, and comprehensive sexuality education with an emphasis on LGBT lifestyles. Despite GSUSA’s assurance that they do not always take the same positions as WAGGGS, they have never objected to a specific WAGGGS’ statement or advocacy on these issues.

The Archbishop’s statement includes his recommendation for parishes to continue to offer the benefits of scouting by establishing American Heritage Girls (AHG) troops. Unlike Girl Scout troops, which may meet at a parish but the authority and decision making remains with the local council, AHG troops are chartered through the parish that sponsors it, keeping the authority and decision making with the pastor. While Girl Scouts, a secular organization, has made the word “God” optional in their century-old promise, AHG defines itself as a Christ-centered scouting organization that is pro-God, pro-family, pro-life. Over 25 percent of AHG troops nationwide are Catholic, and AHG has a National Catholic Committee with Bishop James Conley serving as its Episcopal Moderator. AHG has created multiple Catholic patches, including the brand new patch commemorating the 100 year anniversary of Our Lady of Fatima, as well as a Respect Life patch, in addition to the National Federation of Catholic Youth Ministry’s awards which may be earned by all Catholic girls.

Archbishop Naumann’s statement is the strongest among a growing number of bishops providing guidance on this issue. In it he includes the reason for his directive, stating “Our greatest responsibility as a Church is to the children and young people in our care. We have a limited time and number of opportunities to impact the formation of our young people. It is essential that all youth programs at our parishes affirm virtues and values consistent with our Catholic faith.”

May more bishops, priests, and parents join Archbishop Naumann in acting based upon this God given responsibility, and may this be the beginning of the end of the Catholic Church/Girl Scout relationship.

“It is not cutting ties,” Brian Miller, executive director of the archdiocese’s Catholic Youth Apostolate, said of the letter. “It is asking folks to really evaluate what we are doing and why we are doing it because of the problems we have seen and the issues that have come up a few times.”

The archdiocese followed the letter with a guide of answers to frequently asked questions, including whether a Catholic could buy Girl Scout cookies (“Each person must act in accord with their conscience”) and how to find Catholic-leaning alternatives to the Girl Scouts.

The archdiocese highlighted the cookies because it said a percentage of local sales could go to the national parent organization, the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A.

Archbishop Carlson criticized the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. for its ties to Amnesty International, the Coalition for Adolescent Girls, Oxfam and other groups because of their support for sex education and reproductive rights. He said the organization’s promotion of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan as role models was “in conflict with Christian values.”

In 2014, the archdiocese’s Catholic Youth Apostolate released a letter with similar concerns to pastors and followers. But since then, Archbishop Carlson wrote, the archdiocese has had “more questions than answers,” even though the Scouts’ national organization and its local chapter “tried to downplay and distance themselves” from the controversial issues.

The archdiocese objected specifically to a “statement of inclusivity” from the Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri that explained how to welcome a transgender child into the group.