ELLISVILLE — Girls in vests and sashes with merit badges sit squirming on the floor in the school commons until it's time for the flag ceremony.
The girls, meeting at St. John Lutheran School in Ellisville, aren't Girl Scouts. They are American Heritage Girls, a Christian-based alternative to the more secular Girl Scouts.
After the flag ceremony, and before they begin the evening's projects, they pray.
"Thank you for bringing us together to do your service today," says Jody Token, troop coordinator, standing before the group. "We do this all in Jesus' name. Amen."
American Heritage Girls began in 1995 with a Cincinnati-area woman and her friends who weren't happy that the Girl Scouts had allowed the word "God" to be substituted with another option, such as "my creator," in the Girl Scout Promise.
The group started with 100 girls, and in recent weeks has surpassed 18,000 members in 45 states and six countries. Nine groups with a total of 357 girls meet in the St. Louis area; there were five local groups at this time last year. They are based at private schools and churches in Jefferson, St. Charles and St. Louis counties.
Founder Patti Garibay, who had been a longtime Girl Scout leader for her daughters, wanted a choice.
"We are faith-based, and they are secular, and that's a change," she said. "We're not for everybody, but we're obviously for a lot of people."
Garibay estimates that 90 percent of Heritage members have left the Girl Scouts.
Shanna Stewart, who home-schools her two daughters in Wentzville, found American Heritage Girls after becoming concerned when she learned the Girl Scouts had invited a lesbian to speak at the national level. "They were encouraging girls to embrace whoever they were; it didn't matter what choices they made, as long as they were true to themselves. That was a concern."
Stewart is now the troop coordinator for a group of 47 girls based at Dardenne Presbyterian Church.
"Are we going to talk about God? Are we going to talk about Christ? Absolutely we are. But I love the fact that it's not in our face, but it is there."
Donna Martin, head of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri, would not talk about American Heritage Girls, saying she does not know much about them. But she said Girl Scouts learn more about themselves when they talk to others with different beliefs.
"As we talk to people about the world of Girl Scouting, we try to make it very clear that we are open to our girls, that there is a place for them, regardless of race or religion or disabilities or anything else," Martin said.
Donna McDowell of St. Charles County organized an American Heritage troop at Harvester Christian Church after realizing she wasn't happy about the Girl Scouts — especially after her home-schooled daughter's troop, based at a public school, had taken the word "God" out of the promise.
She likes the American Heritage Girls' emphasis on service and its partnership with the Boy Scouts. The Harvester troop, new this year, has 26 girls in first through eighth grade.
A troop of American Heritage Girls consists of girls ages 5 to 18. It may have as few as 10 girls or as many as 150. They meet as one group for some projects and activities and divide by age for others.
Troops in the St. Louis area typically meet twice a month. They do service projects, such as collecting items for Joplin tornado victims or dog toys for a pet shelter. They work on badges in subjects such as auto mechanics and horsemanship but also on topics like the Bible and their relationship with God.
"It's hard enough finding friends, being home-schooled," said Lindsey Geisz, 10, a St. John troop member from Wildwood. "And you have to break through the barrier of being Christian. You can meet other Christian girls here. That really helps."
Nearly 62,000 Scouts are part of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri, which covers the St. Louis area and 27 counties from Kirksville to Ste. Genevieve.
The Girl Scouts don't ban or endorse prayer or any particular religion and call themselves a secular group founded on American principles such as freedom of religion. The organization lets individual leaders determine what type of faith teaching is relevant to their group, and Scouts can earn religious awards. It also does not take a position on human sexuality or birth control.
In recent months, grass-roots efforts calling for a boycott of Girl Scout cookies have popped up in response to a Colorado troop's decision to allow a 7-year-old boy, who identified himself as a girl, into the troop. Gay-rights groups have called for people to buy cookies to support the decision.
The creed for American Heritage Girls requires members to honor God, keep their minds and bodies "pure" and to respect the beliefs of others. Even though the group is Christian-based, it is open to girls of other faiths. Its leaders and charter groups must adhere to a statement of faith that asks them to reserve sex until after marriage, which it defines as "a lifelong commitment before God between a man and a woman."
It does not allow gays to be leaders or adult members.
American Heritage Girls also have aligned themselves with the Boy Scouts of America, which isn't Christian-based but whose promise includes a duty to God. They allow uniform emblems for many different religions, including Islamic, Jewish and Christian faiths. The Boy Scouts of America also does not allow openly gay leaders, atheists or agnostics.
In 2009, American Heritage Girls and the Boy Scouts entered an official agreement to provide mutual support. American Heritage Girls have participated in the annual Scouting for Food Drive, traditionally a Boy Scout event, and go camping at Boy Scout camps. In St. Louis, the American Heritage Girls have camped at Beaumont Scout Reservation, a Boy Scout camp that straddles St. Louis and Jefferson counties. The Boy Scouts do not have a similar agreement with the Girl Scouts on a national level but do combine efforts many times at the local level.
Local Boy Scout spokesman Joe Mueller said the relationship between the local Boy Scouts and American Heritage Girls is one of mutual support, and they are happy to share facilities.
"Nobody has the corner on the market to say, we invented camping and backpacking," he said. "At the end of the day, we're helping more kids have a meaningful, outdoor program that helps them grow into responsible adults of character."
Token, in addition to being the troop coordinator for St. John, is also the national spokeswoman for American Heritage Girls.
She said she wants the experiences of her daughters, Jessica, 11, and Meagan, 13, to match her family's values.
"These are kids who just want to have fun, hang out and talk about their faith," she said, scanning the room where the girls sat assembling their own cookbooks for a cooking badge. "We're very transparent. We're going to share the love of Christ with everybody."