You Gotta Believe

updated 11/18/2002 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/18/2002 01:00AM

The Boy Scout motto is "Be prepared." But Darrell Lambert, 19, an Eagle Scout from Olalla, Wash., with 37 merit badges, certainly wasn't ready for what happened to him. On Nov. 4 Lambert, who happens to be an atheist, was drummed out of the Scouts for refusing to profess a belief in a supreme being, which is one of the 12 tenets of the Scout Law. "This country is based on religious freedom," says an incredulous Lambert, a freshman at Tacoma Community College, "but I still have to defend my beliefs."

A Scout for 10 years, Lambert compiled a sterling record in the organization. "I love teaching kids how to hike, climb, backpack," says Lambert, whose mother, Trisha, even served as the scoutmaster of his troop. Lambert became an atheist in the ninth grade after studying evolution and never made a secret of it. Last year, when he was interviewed for his Eagle badge by local scouting officials, he openly acknowledged his lack of religious faith. Not only did he make Eagle, scouting's highest honor, he also won praise from the officials for being so honest. Recalls Lambert: "They said it took guts."

But after Lambert recently disclosed his atheism during a training session for adult leaders, some higher-level scoutmasters took exception. He was given a week to change his mind or face expulsion from the Scouts. When he refused, he was promptly stripped of his membership. "I was given a week to betray my own beliefs," says Lambert. "It's wrong."

The fact is, however, that the Boy Scouts have every legal right to set the definition of their membership, a principle underscored two years ago when the organization won a case before the Supreme Court upholding their ban on gays. "We don't force our values on anyone," says Gregg Shields, a spokesman for the Boy Scouts of America. "But people who do share our values are welcome to join us." Lambert plans to appeal—but now he is prepared for the worst.

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