Each fall, the College of Charleston hosts a week-long United Way Campaign with the aim of raising money for the charity, which redistributes its donations amongst a host of local nonprofits.
When CofC President George Benson sent out the announcement last week, math professor and outspoken atheist Herb Silverman fired back with the same call for a boycott that he's authored for the last nine years. He objects to the United Way because they support the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), which publicly rejects homosexuals and atheists from their ranks.
"In order to be a member, you have to believe in some type of greater being, whether it's the Christian God or Muslim Allah," says Legare Clement, Scout executive for the Coastal Carolina Council. "We're even accepting the children of Wicca belief, multiple gods and things like that, so it's very liberal in the understanding of what God is. But it has to be a belief in a supreme being."
In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the BSA's right to deny membership to gays and atheists, based on their First Amendment rights to "expressive association" as a private organization. That stance has led some of the country's United Way chapters to deny funding to the Scouts.
Charleston's Trident United Way, however, is a regular supporter of Scoutreach, a BSA program directed toward communities where traditional, volunteer troops have failed, such as rural areas like Edisto Island and Hollywood and inner-city neighborhoods like the Neck of the peninsula and North Charleston.
Trident United Way Vice President of Communications Barry Waldman speaks of our "sickeningly striated community" in Charleston, citing a 40 percent dropout rate and 40 percent of families with a gross income under $20,000. Nearly half of adults have a literacy rating falling below the level needed to hold a clerical job. Waldman says it all underscores the importance of programs like Scoutreach.
"Boys (in these areas) are headed for these dysfunctions unless we can capture them in time. Scoutreach offers them positive role models, leadership skill building, and instruction in 21st century workplace skills. That's why United Way invests in this one Boy Scout program," says Waldman, adding that he wishes the national group was "more open-minded" but appreciates the good work they do.
In Silverman's view, any positive impact by Scoutreach is overshadowed by the group's discriminatory policies.
"Just as the United Way would never assist the Ku Klux Klan or any other organization that openly discriminates against African-Americans, Catholics, or Jews, I feel it should also not endorse discrimination against gays and atheists," he wrote in a 2000 letter published in USA Today.
Some staff members have thanked Silverman for the information and bemoaned the BSA's position, while others have pointed out that the United Way supports a host of organizations helping the community (including the Carolina Youth Development Center, Crisis Ministries, and the Lowcountry Food Bank).
Robert Dillon, an evolution professor in the biology department, pointedly called out Silverman in his response, defending the Scouts and their position.
"There is no sex in the BSA, period. No heterosexuality, no homosexuality, none, end of story," he wrote.
There's no rock and roll, drugs, alcohol, gambling, cursing, fighting, or any other vice either, Dillon adds, because Scouting is first and foremost about duty to God, country, and our fellow man, not to ourselves.
United Way does let people specify organizations rather than giving just to the general fund. Trident's Waldman says that any money given without restrictions is divvied up by the group's board.
Still, Silverman says he regularly donates to specific charities, but won't participate in CofC's fund-raiser this year.
"It's unfortunate that people have to choose between their desire to donate in an easy way versus condoning such discrimination," says Silverman.