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 youngsters 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 of America’s decision in 2015 to allow gay troop leaders, since Mormon-sponsored troops have remained free to operate according to their religious teachings.
Instead, the church said it wanted a new, simplified program more closely tailored to Mormon teenagers.
Boys ages 14 to 18 will no longer participate in Boy Scouts starting next year, according to the church. The Boy Scouts said the decision will affect 130,000 teens; the church put the number at 185,000.
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 put the number at 330,000.
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.
Joining the Boy Scouts is practically automatic among Mormon boys, with the church covering the cost of troops for congregations and strongly encouraging participation.
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.
For years, the church has been working to create a scouting-like program it could use around the world, since more than half of its nearly 16 million members are outside the United States. Scouting is available only in the U.S. and Canada.
The church did not provide a timeline for the rollout of the program for younger age groups.
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.
Despite worries that that policy change 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 units affiliated with conservative religious denominations have remained in the fold, still free to exclude gay adults.
In a statement, the church said that the Scouts’ programs for teenagers 14 to 18 have historically been difficult to implement with the religion, and that 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 that on their own while also participating in the new program, said church spokesman Eric Hawkins.
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