Any current or former Girl Scout can recall the first words of the group’s promise, “On my honor, I will try to serve God and my country.”
God, faith and spirituality have been ingrained in the backbone and history of the secular organization, whose badge-wearing, cookie-selling members are still going strong across the country.
But for the better part of the past decade, the Catholic Church has eyed the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. suspiciously, claiming the organization is too close to groups in conflict with the anti-abortion, traditional family values of the Catholic faith, such as Planned Parenthood. The Girl Scouts organization has denied the allegations, but the controversies — largely rooted in misinformation — have prompted dioceses to cut ties with the scouts.
In the latest instance, the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas is ending its relationship with the Girl Scouts and transitioning its support to a Christian-based scouting group, saying the Girl Scouts’ programs and materials are “reflective of many of the troubling trends in our secular culture,” and that the organization is “no longer a compatible partner in helping us form young women with the virtues and values of the Gospel.”
Kansas Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann said in a statement Monday the archdiocese’s pastors have been asked to begin phasing out Girl Scouts troops, either quickly or over the next several years. As an alternative, the statement said, they should begin forming troops through American Heritage Girls, which describes itself as a “Christ-centered leadership and character development ministry” that promotes itself as a faith-based alternative to the secular Girl Scouts.
Some priests are allowing existing Girl Scout troops to continue meeting on church premises until their members graduate. Others have told their troop leaders they will have to start meeting elsewhere. Naumann also called for an end to Girl Scout cookie sales in the archdiocese, the Kansas City Star reported.
“No Girl Scout cookie sales should occur in Catholic Schools or on parish property after the 2016-2017 school year,” he said in a letter to priests in January.
The decision to phase out Girl Scout troops across the archdiocese, which oversees dozens of Catholic churches and schools in 21 counties in northeast Kansas, was welcomed by some families who feel the American Heritage Girls’ faith-based approach aligns best with Catholicism. But it also prompted anger and frustration among many families who have seen generations of their children benefit from the program’s leadership-building, service-oriented mission.
“I just wish we could have coexisted,” said Maria Walters, a former Girl Scout leader in the archdiocese and mother of two Girl Scouts, said in an interview with the Washington Post. “To take down a little girls organization when kids need to feel connected, need to feel important, is really sad to me.”
Since 2007, the archdiocese leadership has been addressing concerns from some Girl Scout members and their mothers, who claimed that Girl Scout materials contradicted their Catholic beliefs, Naumann said. In the years that followed articles circulated on the Internet and criticism mounted over the group’s membership in the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS), which comprises 145 member organizations and is “closely tied to and celebrated by International Planned Parenthood,” Naumann said.
Girl Scouts of the U.S.A., Naumann wrote in his statement, contributes more than a million dollars a year to the membership organization, which advocates for women’s health legislation that specifically includes artificial contraception and abortion as a right of all women.
Girl Scout materials also frequently present Margret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, and feminist pioneers Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem as role models, Naumann said, adding that these women “do not support a Catholic worldview.”
However, the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. has repeatedly said it does not take a position or develop materials on issues regarding human sexuality, birth control and abortion, and that it does not have a relationship or partnership with Planned Parenthood. It compares its membership in WAGGGS to the United States’ relationship with the United Nations, saying it does not necessarily agree with every position the membership group takes. The national funds that the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. sends to WAGGGS come solely from investment income.
“It’s hard for me to understand why we have to be responsible for something that’s happening in another country or across the world,” said Walters. “To be looking at it so globally, it’s hard for me to wrap my head about it.”
Walters used to coordinate her parish’s Girl Scout troops, which usually amounted to about 100 girls, and have existed at the parish for at least 25 years. Troop leaders are no longer allowed to recruit in the church’s newsletter or post fliers on church grounds, though the parish’s priest is allowing current groups to continue meeting.
“Many leaders were very concerned and quite frankly angry about it,” Walters said. She is particularly unsettled by the fact that the archdiocese has so far not taken such actions against the Boy Scouts of America.
She says her church’s Girl Scouts have led numerous food drives through the church, worked with the Ronald McDonald House, local children’s hospitals and has volunteered around the parish. It has also hosted a popular father-daughter dance.
Walters said the Girl Scouts’ network, which has 1.9 million girl members and 800,000 adult members nationwide, also provides valuable scholarships and opportunities for girls later on in life. When her daughter, who is heading to college next year, mentioned her nine years of participation in the Girl Scouts to admissions counselors, “that is something they recognize,” Walters said.
“They recognize the leadership, the service, Walters said. “I’m not sure what the reaction would be if I said American Heritage.”
Kansas City joins a growing list of archdioceses across the country that have taken measures against the Girl Scouts in their communities. The Archdiocese of St. Louis in February of last year published an advisory addressed to priests, followers and scout leaders, urging them to scale back ties with the Girl Scouts and to think twice about membership and even about buying their cookies.
In January 2012, St. Timothy Roman Catholic parish in Chantilly in Fairfax County, Va., ousted 12 troops with 115 girls. Lawmakers in Indiana and Alaska have publicly berated the Girl Scouts.
Some parents began reporting that when their daughters went out to sell Girl Scout cookies, they had doors slammed in their faces by people refusing to make purchases because they think the profits go to support abortion and birth control.
About three years ago, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops began studying the issue. It said it held a lengthy dialogue with the Girl Scouts and developed a resource guide for Catholics, writing that the question of whether to host Girl Scouts must be answered at the local level. Diocesan bishops have the final authority over what is appropriate for Catholic scouting in their dioceses, it said.
American Heritage Girls has 1,005 troops and more than 47,000 members, claiming troops in every state in the country and some foreign countries. About a quarter of the membership is Catholic, with American Heritage Girls troops in more than half the dioceses in the United States.
The organization was attractive to the archdiocese because of its Christian values and in part because of its opposition to abortion. Some of the troops have participated in protests and prayer vigils outside clinics that perform abortions, the Kansas City Star reported.
In a lengthy explanation about the archdiocese’s relationship with the Girl Scouts, Naumann wrote that “Girl Scouting is adopting the popular culture; we are dedicated to Catholic teaching.”
“While secular programs feel they must change with the culture to survive, Jesus calls us to stand in the truth,” he wrote.
Walters disagrees, saying, “we definitely need to grow with the change in the world.”
“You may not care for what the girl scouts do, and that’s fine,” Walters said. “But there’s some of us and a lot of us who like the Girl Scouts. I wish the archbishop would have recognized that, and not cut us.”