It was originally designed as a gender-segregated youth training, focussed on physical, mental, and spiritual development. As it was founded in the predominantly Christian times back in 1907 (when non-sectarian was the closest equivalent to modern secularism), everyone was assumed to pledge allegiance to God (and to the monarchy in the British/Commonwealth countries).
With such conservative roots, it’s had a tough time with the inclusion of gays/lesbians and atheists. There’s even an entire Wikipedia article on Scouting controversies.
Hemant Mehta linked to the story of seven-year-old British Brownie Maddie Willett who was forced to quit her group for refusal to profess a love of God. Similar stories are frequent in the USA.
Scouts Canada, meanwhile, lives on the progressive edge of Scouting, noting from their website:
Does Scouts Canada admit both boys and girls?
Yes. Scouts Canada has had completely co-ed programs since 1998.
Do you have to believe in God to join Scouts Canada? Is Scouting a Christian organization?
No, but you must have a basic spiritual belief. Spirituality has been one of the three main principles of Scouting around the world since its inception 100 years ago. Scouts Canada welcomes members of many different faiths and denominations; we are proud of our commitment to diversity. That said, you need not belong to an organized religion, but all leaders and youth must take the Scout Promise in good faith, and leaders should be able to include some form of spirituality in their program for the youth.“God” is the word in the Promise used to represent spirituality, and for some may represent an actual deity, but it may also mean to your family an expression of your personal spirituality.
"Duty to God" as defined by the World Organization of the Scouting Movement, means "a person’s relationship with the spiritual values of life, the fundamental belief in a force above mankind."
Are homosexuals allowed to join Scouts Canada?
Scouts Canada does not discriminate for reasons of gender, culture, religious belief (see above) or sexual orientation.
They do still list “Duty to God” in their Principles (in fact, it comes first), even though they allow whatever definition you want (which makes it an empty and useless phrase).
Meanwhile, Girl Guides Canada goes even further, with their latest entirely secular promise:
I Promise to do my best,
To be true to myself, my beliefs and Canada
I will take action for a better world
And respect the Guiding Law
The Guiding Law simply gives some universal good traits that we should all remember:
- be honest and trustworthy
- use my resources wisely
- respect myself and others
- recognize and use my talents and abilities
- protect our common environment
- live with courage and strength
- share in the sisterhood of Guiding.
This newest promise, enacted in January 2010 (according to Wikipedia and this blog) uses “my beliefs” instead of “my God/faith*”, which included a footnote further clarifying that it means whatever you want it to mean. Before 94, Guides pledged duty to God and the Queen.
I think we can be proud of our Girl Guides, and even of our Scouting Canada (although they still have a bit further to go). But feel free to correct me and provide any tales of woe in the comments.