SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Mormon church, the biggest sponsor of Boy Scout troops in the United States, announced Thursday it is pulling as many as 185,000 older youths from the organization as part of an effort to start its own scouting-like program.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said the move wasn’t triggered by the Boy Scouts’ decision in 2015 to allow gay troop leaders, since Mormon-sponsored troops have remained free to exclude such adults on religious grounds.
But at least one leading Mormon scholar said that the Boy Scouts and the Mormons have been diverging on values in recent years and that the policy on gays was probably one of several contributing factors in the split.
Saying it wants a new, simplified program of its own that is more closely tailored to Mormon teenagers, the church announced that boys ages 14 to 18 will no longer participate in the Boy Scouts starting next year. The church said the decision will affect 185,000 teens, while the Boy Scouts put the number at 130,000.
The loss is only a fraction of the 2.3 million youths in the Boy Scouts of America, but the organization has been grappling with declining membership for years and has enjoyed an unusually close bond with the Mormon church for more than a century because of their shared values. Joining the Boy Scouts is practically automatic among Mormon boys.
Boy Scouts of America spokeswoman Effie Delimarkos said the organization is saddened by the decision but understands the church’s desire to customize a program.
About 280,000 Mormon boys ages 8 to 13 will remain in the Scouts while the church continues to develop its own program, the Mormons said. The Boy Scouts estimated the number at 330,000. The church did not say when the younger boys will be withdrawn from the Boy Scouts.
Like other conservative religions, the Mormon church opposes gay marriage and teaches that being in a homosexual relationship is a sin. The church initially said it was “deeply troubled” by the Boy Scouts’ policy change on gays but stayed with the organization after receiving assurances it could appoint troop leaders according to its own religious and moral values.
In Thursday’s announcement, the church said that it learned recently that the Boy Scouts are considering admitting girls, but that its decision was made independently of that.
Matthew Bowman, a Mormon scholar and associate professor of history at Henderson State University, said the schism reflects the two organizations’ diverging values, with gays and girls just two such issues.
“The church is wedded very much to traditional gender roles and they see the Boy Scouts of America increasingly move away from that,” Bowman said. “That means that they have come to see it as less of a hospitable place.”
Despite worries that the policy change on gays would cause Boy Scouts membership to dip even further, the organization reported a strong 2016, with the number of Scouts close to stabilizing after a prolonged decline. The vast majority of troops affiliated with conservative religious denominations have remained in the fold, still free to exclude gay adults.
Thursday’s announcement represents a step first toward something that has been in the works for years: a Mormon-run scouting-type program that could be used in congregations around the world. The church has 15.8 million members, nearly 6 in 10 of them outside the U.S. and Canada. Scouting is available only in the U.S. and Canada.
“The long game here is the church looking forward to a time when Americans are even more of a minority in the church than they are now,” Bowman said.
In a statement, the church said the new program will be tailored to foster Mormon teenagers’ “spiritual, social, physical and intellectual” development.
Mormon teenagers who want to continue working toward the Eagle Scout rank will be able to do that on their own while also participating in the new program, said church spokesman Eric Hawkins.
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