The Benevolent and Protective Order of (non-atheist) Elks

UPDATE 2022: I am no longer affiliated in any way with the Elks. Please read A B.P.O. Elks Update From a Former Officer & Member for details and further information. 

Elks USA Logo

I am honored to be the chairman of the board of trustees for my local Elks lodge. I have “gone through the chairs,” serving as an officer for most of the last ten years. The Elks is a great organization that does good things for our community, and I’m glad I have an opportunity to help.

This is a year of big changes for the Elks. Our ritual will most likely be shortened, titles may change, bylaws are being amended. Like most service organizations, overall membership is down, and the Grand Lodge is scrambling to fix the problems. In our Lodge, membership is on an upward trend. I’ve never seen the organization so active. Membership is up, and we’re breaking all kinds of new ground. We have our first woman as Exalted Ruler (what most groups would call “President”) in the 110-year history of the Lodge. Our Lodge is working closely with other area nonprofits for the benefit of the community. We have cash in the bank, we own our building, we’re giving out more scholarships than ever, and things are looking good overall.

Except for one issue.

I took a break from the Elks a few years ago after my second term as ER (Exalted Ruler), and then came back for a third term and started a full-on membership drive. I approached a lot of people in town, and they asked what is required to be an Elk. Officially, you must answer “yes” to two questions: “Are you a United States Citizen?” and “Do you believe in God?”

The first question is an easy one. The Elks is a patriotic U.S. organization with no branches outside the country. People who want to become citizens generally can (my father did, for example), given enough time living legally in the country. For the most part, people who don’t want to become U.S. citizens won’t have much interest in becoming Elks.

The second question is more complex, even if the Elks Grand Lodge (the national organization) considers it a pretty easy question. Whether you’re Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Jewish, or Muslim, the answer is yes. Even many agnostics can honestly answer yes to that question. They may not believe in the Christian God, but they believe something. I didn’t give the issue a lot of thought until I approached a friend that I thought was perfect for the Elks.

This friend (I’ll call him Mr. K) is very community-minded. He’s smart, he’s involved, and he’s willing to put time into organizations he believes in. He has leadership potential and leadership experience. He liked our scholarship program and many of the other things we were trying to accomplish at the Elks. He was exactly the kind of person I was looking to recruit. But he’s an atheist.

Mr. K has a sense of honor. It’s one of the things I like about him. He’s not going to say “I believe in God” in front of a room full of people when he doesn’t. And I’m not going to ask him to. That incident really bothered me.

The Elks are looking to make a lot of changes over the next year or two. But the atheist issue isn’t even on the table. It’s not likely to be. There are close to a million members, and every single one has stood up in front of a room full of people and said, “I believe in God.” I’m one of them. But what I didn’t say is, “I believe that people like Mr. K aren’t worthy to join our organization.”

Atheists, agnostics, Christians, Wiccans, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus are all just people. No one group — whatever they might like to believe — is any more community minded than the rest. Charity and love for your neighbor come from within you, no matter what your religious beliefs (or lack thereof). I have friends who are atheists, agnostics, Wiccans, and Buddhists, and they are good people. Many of them serve their communities through various nonprofit organizations or committees and help their neighbors in various ways.

I am an Elk. I’m happy to be an Elk. But I’m disgusted that the organization locks out good people like Mr. K because he believes differently. With membership declining nationwide, it seems silly to ignore the 16% of America that isn’t religious — especially when that percentage is growing. I hope that the Elks can move past its history of religious discrimination just as it moved past its history of gender discrimination. I hope that I can be one of the first to hang the jewels of office on an atheist and say, “I’m glad to have you on board.”

UPDATE 2022: The number of Americans described themselves as agnostic, atheist or simply having no religion is up to 22.8% now


  1. A few decades ago I became a member of the Elks despite being an agnostic. I lied when I professed a belief in god. During my time of membership I visited three different lodges based on locations and amenities offered. What I observed in all three lodges was racism and far right political beliefs. Also disturbing was the excessive drinking within the group. However, I was a Tall Elk and greatly appreciated the care given to the community and especially the needs of children. Unfortunately the religious and political beliefs held and shared frequently by the majority of members I met caused me to not renew my membership.

  2. Just retired from the Army and looking to continue to serve in my community through one of the fraternal organizations. I am disheartened to once again be faced with this pointless requirement in today’s more inclusive environment but it shouldn’t stop nonbelievers from serving their communities. I did use a “religion” in the Army as a tongue in cheek response to the god question. I claimed to be a Pastafarian of The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM). If you have a few minutes, look into the history of Pastafarianism and maybe it is something you can believe in so you don’t have to lie. 😉

  3. If they even change the wording to “higher being“ “higher piwer”, I would feel more comfortable. It’s the thing that stops me from joining. I’m with Mr. K and I don’t want to lie. I was forced into Jobes daughters at 16 and I was shy at the time about it when the group of little girls were inducted and they said “do you believe in God?“ and all the little girls in unison said “yes!“. I quietly looked down and whispered “No”’ but this was 1960 and I haven’t come into myself yet. I just knew that I was forming my own belief system that was at odds with everyone else around me. I saw the hypocrisy of the Bible banging side of my family that loves Jesus and hated people of color. It never seemed OK to me.
    And the term “God“ still smacks of Christianity to me. They don’t say God, Allah, Jehovah, etc. it’s God or nothing. if you want to make it inclusive, say “higher being“ that covers it. I believe in nature and I think if there is a God it has to be a woman.

  4. I’m curious about whether the “God” test was ever a “Christian” test in the history of the BPOE. My dad was quite active in the Elks in suburban Chicago in the 50s and 60s, serving a term as exalted ruler and active in regional Elks activities (I think it was called the “Grand Lodge).” I don’t remember any Jewish members, but there weren’t a lot of Jewish families in the area where we lived.

  5. Many years ago, as a recovering addict, I struggled with the 12 Step requirement of admitting there was anything greater than me. Raised in a strict Lutheran home, I especially struggled with the dogmatic definition of their god. So when I had to choose a Higher Power to turn to in my recovery, I was stumped. That is until I met an old timer that shared his same struggles at a meeting. Instead of turning to a dogmatic GOD, he led his life by a Good Orderly Direction or G.O.D. This allowed him to stay clean and grow in his recovery without the burden of being religious.

    I follow the same logic. My G.O.D. defines my values, guides my morals, and strengthens my resolve in the face of harmful or hurtful behavior. All that without believing in some eternal Creator or Spirit or any other dogmatic definition. So when I answered yes to the second question, I was not lying. Not even a little.

    I believe in GOD. It’s not my father’s god or probably even your god. But that’s not the question. I wasn’t asked if I believe in the Christian god. I want asked if I held a certain religion. I don’t even know what god my ER believed in when he asked my the question. And it will never come up.

    Heck, since I am free to define and refine the Good Orderly Direction in which I live, I have since focused more on the principles of Brotherly Love, Justice, Charity, and Fidelity since joining the Elks. Being a member has strengthened my value system.

    Ironically, had I adopted my parents’ god, I could not have become an Elk. Missouri and Wisconsin Lutherans are forbidden from joining “secret societies” or fraternal organizations that do not adhere strictly to their views. Actually, there is a long list of Christian denominations that denounce the B.P.O.E. Sad, I think.

  6. To say I believe in god is like saying I believe in mother earth or the stars that surround us, or the concept of space and time, or science and mathematics and history. I believe in all these things and more. To break it down, I believe in my own definition of “god”; with zero expectation that others should share that belief. But if you look up the definition of “god” there are many answers. And when my husband was asked if he believes in god when joining the Elks, I told him to think of the definition that worked for him, that way he wasn’t lying. His moral compass points due North…mine likes to take the long way home;-)

  7. Thank you for this still timely article. It was the first to pop up to see why the Elks need to be so adamant about a personal choice that has nothing to do with community service. As an agnostic, I am poised to answer yes on the application, but struggling with the need to lie to join, which is amoral to my beliefs. I have been considering joining for a year now. Might need to put it back in the drawer for another. Don’t know why this bothers me so…it’s just a little white lie, right?

    1. Carly, it would be very interesting to know how many Elks members are actually agnostics or atheists that told that little white lie to become members…

  8. I just resigned from Elks Lodge #1682 (Boulder City, Nv) after 21 years. Non-political, my ass. The Elks Lodge in Boulder City recently rented out the Lodge Room for a Marco Rubio rally. Many members of leadership made speeches supporting the candidate. In the past, when I have enquired about renting the room to support Democrat candidates, I was told every time that “we don’t do anything political.” The truth is that the Boulder City Lodge is a right-wing organization parading as a community service club. It is not uncommon to hear the n-word used openy in the lodge, even by the employees. Until the Elks Organization polices it’s own lodges, it will continue to be seen as a right-wing, whites only social club.

    1. That’s an excellent question, and I don’t know the answer. Technically, if you’re willing to answer the question “Do you believe in God” with a “yes,” then you’re in.

  9. I am an Elk. I had to lie to become one. I believe in doing good for good’s sake. I hope the order will someday change.

  10. I am an agnostic and want to join the Elks because they have a beautiful facility n Honolulu. I can say “there may be a god” or “there may be a great geometer”, but I really don’t know what happens if you fall into a black hole. I am considering suing the Elks for discriminating against me. They were ordered by the courts to accept women and blacks. I guess a court case may be necessary to get them to take nonbelievers. Will contact the ACLU.

  11. I’m in my mid 30’s and very involved in community leadership and volunteering…this requirement means I will not join the Elks, even as membership declines in my aging town. Unfortunate.

  12. Great article, Gary. I’ve been working for the Elks for a decade now. I know the Jolly Corks toast by heart (better than probably 95% of the members! I even help PERs when they stumble on the words) and I consider everyone at the lodge to be family. I absolutely love the heart behind the organization, and all of the wonderful things that the members do for the community. I have taken part in charity events. I have served as a designated driver for members who were not in a position to drive home at the end of the night. I am not a member because when I first took the job, there was a local rule that paid employees should not be members. This rule has since been lifted; however, I do not plan to apply for membership. This is because I am an atheist, and I am aware of the requirements of membership. I would love to see a change in the requirements for religious beliefs. One day I would love to become a member- I can’t imagine leaving this amazing group. I just don’t see myself standing up at the initiation and lying to a room full of people.

  13. My husband and I were invited to the local Elks lodge by one of his work friends for an event. We had a great time and everyone seemed really nice. They were certainly the kind of people we’d like to become friends with in our new town. However, we were invited to an info session to learn about membership and they mentioned belief in god as a requirement. I have nothing against religion per se, but they requirement bothered me. I also saw on the form that they ask you to acknowledge this in writing and out loud!

    I don’t want to lie to these perfectly wonderful people, but I also don’t want to be excluded from the one social group in town that seems to be full of just the kind fun, helpful people we were hoping to form a sense of community with.

    We are still on the fence with how to proceed. Suggestions?

    1. I really don’t know what to tell you. I think the Elks is a good group of people that does good things for our country and our community, but it just doesn’t feel right to say your first night as a member will begin with a lie. I had an opportunity to meet the current GER (Grand Exalted Ruler – the top official in the whole organization), Ronald Hicks, and I told him that in my opinion, discriminating against atheists is preventing some active, caring people from becoming members of the organization. I feel we should drop that membership requirement. My suggestion was not met with enthusiasm. I think that every single atheist and agnostic who has an interest in joining the Elks should send a message to Grand Lodge. Let them see that there’s a deep pool of potential members they are overlooking. Perhaps change is possible!

  14. Exactamundo…… just recently I was invited to join my local Elks Lodge. I visited as a guest and was all set to join. When I saw the second question on the application I realized, as an atheist), that I could not honestly sign up.

  15. I am so glad you’re still replying to posts 3 years after this article is written. I want to be an elk, but can it due to the religeous overtones. Lions club numbers are thriving all over the United States, in large part due to the fact it is strictly oriented towards the community and it leaves God to the churches.

    3 years have passed since this article has been written. Has there been any change in this issue, or, is it now on the table? Thanks for your response

    1. Thank you, Mike. I haven’t re-read this post in a couple of years. I feel it even more strongly now than I did then. I’m sorry the Elks have policies in place that don’t allow you to be a member, and I’m sorry that I had to turn you away. It makes me wonder why I’m still paying dues there.

  16. just turned 21, my friend’s entire family consists of elks elks elks. they’ve taken me along to a bunch of places, as well as hunting, shooting, etc. Some of the best fun I’ve had in a while.When I saw all the veterans donation boxes sitting at the bar instead of tip jars, I knew this was a great organization. I was convinced I was joining before they even suggested it….. annnnnnnddddd then I realized I Cannot for this reason… hopefully it will one day change. I would love to be a part of this awesome organization. When I saw all the veterans donation boxes sitting at the bar instead of tip jars, I knew this was a great organization.

  17. Wow Gary, its nice to see that there are fellow Elks who are like-minded to my sentiments. I applaud you for voicing your opinion.

  18. I ran across your article. It was the first in Elkdom that I have seen concerning atheism. I asked that question this past year in north central Texas. I don’t think anyone was upset by the question; only that it was a Grand Lodge decision and “they would never do that.”

    They have shortened the rituals to get more people involved and more to join. But your point is spot on. How do you ignore the Humanist/atheist population and still expect to grow?

    Thank you for your article.

  19. I wanted to join the Elks lodge myself. My wife, who doesn’t think much about existential issues (it’s part of what keeps us so happily together), had no trouble saying yes even though I consider her an atheist. She really doesn’t consider either way.

    I consider, however, a lot. Every day I wake up amazed to be here with either free will or something that feels enough like it I’d never be able to tell the difference. And I believe strongly in community, both local and global. We’re all in this together on the only habitable planet in lifetimes of travel at the fastest speeds we’ve ever seen matter of any kind move. And I wholeheartedly believe in doing everything we can to make that reality acceptable, sustainable—downright enjoyable, even.

    And as someone who studies cosmology as a matter of passion, I’m afraid I’ll be unable to join either even though it’s my understanding one is supposed to leave politics and religion at the door. I certainly couldn’t tell a room full of people I believed in god without a preamble to explain that when I refer to god it’s only a reference to the laws of the universe, known and unknown. Is a law a god when I’m only comfortable to admitting to the former?

    My wife can’t believe I’m even putting thought into this, but as someone ethnically Jewish, it’s difficult for me to lie about something so many of my ancestors died being honest about, much less to gain access to a social club.

    1. I understand completely, Mitch, and it’s unfortunate that you should even be asked such a question these days. And no, you don’t need to rewrite it. Your comment makes perfect sense.

  20. My cousin has just been installed as an exalted ruler. She’s a pretty amazing person so I thought I’d check out what the Elks have to offer (if it’s good enough for her, it’s gotta be a good thing). But, I’m a lot like Mr. K. So, because of that one requirement I’ll have to take my interest and energy elsewhere.

    1. It’s rough, isn’t it? When your personal beliefs have nothing at all to do with the organization and yet they won’t allow you to help.

      Incidentally, there’s a part of the oath that members have to take that says: “I will never introduce into the Order anything of a political or sectarian nature, nor in any way by my conduct bring reproach upon it.”

      I can’t help but feel that every time we turn away a good volunteer we have violated that oath. We have introduced something of a sectarian nature, and we have brought reproach upon the order by our bigotry and prejudice.

  21. I’m also not able to become a member of the Elks even after spending 21 years in the military, getting the Army medal for “outstanding volunteer” for my work with stray animals and the volunteer medical missions I did with my units. I am patriotic, caring and community minded. I wanted to be a part of my community by joining a group that other professionals in my workplace belong but cannot because I am an atheist. Sad…maybe years from now the Elks will reconsider, it has only been fairly recently they admitted blacks and women.

    1. I’m sorry to hear that, Katherine. It’s unfortunate that we limit our pool of good, dedicated volunteers at a time when overall membership is declining.

  22. The Jolly Corks was first formed as a fun place for brothers to join together, drink and network. Yes, the service part of the brotherhood grew from that but servicing the members was the first priority.

    I think the Elks’ charitable activities are fine and should be continued but two things I would change immediately – end the ban on atheists. Many intelligent people don’t buy into those superstitions anymore and second, focus on networking. Be able to tell a prospective member, “This is how we can help you in your professional and social life.” I would also create a Professional Caucus that brothers with Masters and Doctorates could join to network with each other.

  23. A member of the Tacoma Elks since 1973. Born and raised i uptown Butte. A retired professional violinist and educator. Wrote a few years ago to Grand Lodge after a friend was turned down for refusing to say he was a believer suggesting the policy be dropped. Now recently banned from the Elks for protesting the sale of the ELKS lodge property to WalMart. My letter thrown back at me. Just thought I would share. This is the email I received from the PEER and executive operating chair of the lodge. #174: I read and liked your posing the atheist question..

    Elks official Ron Forest calls anti Walmart protestors ” Heathens.”

    From: Ron Forest PER, executive officer
    Sent: Tuesday, December 13, 2011
    To: Jim Shea

    I really can’t believe you were ever a true member of this Lodge. You really have no clue about this Lodge, it’s Members or its mission. You also have no knowledge of the property sale details, so you make it up as you go. Unfortunately your guesses are 100% wrong. I wonder how it feels to be so wrong in your thinking. I read a letter that you sent to Grand Lodge outlining your opposition to our requirement that you believe in God. In that letter you asked if someone who didn’t believe was a less worthy person and a person who could not be trusted. Your actions have proven that to be true. I can tell you are really upset that your minority group of anti WalMart heathens has lost. Too bad.

    Here’s an idea for you and your group. Why don’t you put as much effort into helping people as you do into trying to fight against something you have no true knowledge of? Stop listening to fools who spew half-truths and innuendo and make your life count for something. I will pray that you do, even though I know you are a lost cause.

    Get a life and maybe your miserable existence will end up having some human value.
    FaceBook comments 12/18/2011

    1. Wow. It’s unfortunate that a PER would write something so hateful to you. That attitude really goes against what the Elks are all about. In these days of struggling fraternal organizations, we need a more inclusive view, not one that drives people away.

      And anyone who is anti-Wal-Mart is okay in my book. That company is one of the most devastating things ever to hit small-town America. I don’t know how many more lives and how many more historic downtowns they have to destroy before people wake up.

  24. I was an agnostic when I joined the Elks 20 years ago. Now I am a full blown Atheist and just getting ready to quit over this issue. It is IMHO utterly un-american to ban atheists.

    1. Unfortunately, Alfred, there are a lot of people who can’t tell the difference between “people who don’t think like me” and “bad people” — and those people control Elks national policies.

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