SALT LAKE CITY — Sixteen-year-old Eagle Scout Matthew Spurrier said it's "a little silly" to suggest his troop was trying to make a political statement by lining up on the airport tarmac to greet GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney this week.
"I don't think we were going to say, ‘Oh, yeah, Scouts support Mitt,'" Matthew, a junior at Olympus High School, said Thursday. "I just think it was a fun experience for a Scouting troop to meet someone who is interesting."
But the troop's brief exchange with Romney after he arrived at the Salt Lake City International Airport executive terminal Tuesday prompted local Scout councils to issue a reminder of a policy prohibiting participation in political events.
Their appearance with Romney even sparked discussion on a national blog for Scout leaders written by Bryan Wendell, a senior editor of Scouting magazine and an Eagle Scout.
Wendell said the incident "looks to me like a violation of BSA policy."
"(There's) nothing we can do about that, however, other than tell people to please be cognizant of the message that kind of image sends to the populace," he said.
Boy Scouts of America policy allows Scouts to provide a color guard flag ceremony at a political event, but they are to leave immediately after the presentation of colors and the Pledge of Allegiance.
Wendell's blog warns Scouts and their leaders that "the line between patriotism and political favoritism becomes thin" during election years.
He said they shouldn't be seen on a "speakers' platform or in a conspicuous location where media could construe their presence as an endorsement or symbol of support."
The Scouts who greeted Romney were in uniform. So were the Scouts from another troop who met Romney's vice presidential nominee, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, at the Provo airport earlier this month.
Both Romney and Ryan were in Utah to raise campaign cash at private fundraisers. Both candidates were photographed only during their airport arrivals while in Utah.
Kay Godfrey, director of development for the Great Salt Lake Council of the Boy Scouts of America, said he received complaints about the troop's participation in the Romney event.
"I receive phone calls every time that we're someplace they feel is inappropriate, right or wrong," Godfrey said, declining to be specific about how many people raised concerns.
The issue is nothing new, he said, but the latest incident did prompt an email reminder of the policy on Scout participation in political events. The Utah National Parks Council issued a similar reminder.
"Every political season this flares up," Godfrey said. "It's our opportunity to be a little proactive and put this out to try and ensure the integrity of scouting is maintained. That's what this is about. Scouting is nonpartisan and always has been."
That means Scouts couldn't greet a president arriving in Utah, Godfrey said, because showing up in uniform might be seen as a political endorsement by the organization.
"We're not saying they can't take youth and go places. The issue is the uniform," he said. "That's what our caution is, to be very, very careful."
Matthew said he was unaware of the policy.
"I didn't feel like we were doing anything wrong," the troop member from Cottonwood Heights said. "I thought it was a little silly. We're kids. I'm the oldest, and I'm 16 going on 17."
He said the chance to shake hands and say hello to a presidential candidate got him interested in learning more about the race, even though he's still too young to vote.
"I got to meet someone running for president. If President Obama came, it would be cool to see him, too," Matthew said. "I would do it again in a heartbeat."
His parents agreed it was a good experience for him.
"I think anything that would get young people interested and excited in the political process is a good thing," his mother, Lori Spurrier, said.
A former Cub Scout leader, she said she was not aware of the policy.
"I've been in Scouting for years. My brothers were all Eagle Scouts. And I had no idea that they weren't supposed to be at any political events," she said, describing the event at the airport her son participated in as more of a welcoming committee.
Matthew's father, Steve Spurrier, didn't put it in the political category, either.47 comments on this story
"I thought it was a great opportunity to meet someone in the public eye," he said. "It never crossed my mind that it had a political leaning or any particular support."
And although Matthew described his family as Republican-leaning, state Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis was on their side.
"This is political correctness at its pettiest," Dabakis said. "The Utah Democratic Party is thrilled that a troop of Boy Scouts got an upfront visit with a presidential nominee, right here in Utah."