The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a longstanding partner of Boy Scouts of America (BSA) but which has grown uneasy with BSA’s increasingly liberal stances on gay and transgender issues, took a step away from the organization Thursday. The church insisted that the decision had nothing to do with LGBT issues, but with the needs of older boys.
“As part of the Church’s ongoing effort to evaluate and improve its service to families and young people worldwide, the Church will no longer charter Varsity or Venturing units with the Boy Scouts of America and Scouts Canada effective January 1, 2018,” the church’s office of the First Presidency declared in a letter Thursday.
“We express sincere appreciation and gratitude to all adult leaders who have supported young men in these programs and are grateful for our long-standing and continuing partnership with the Boy Scouts of America and Scouts Canada,” the letter added. “Cub Scout and Boy Scout programs will continue to be chartered through local wards and branches.”
BSA’s Varsity and Venturing programs are designed to allow older boys in scouting to grow beyond the Eagle Scout level. The Mormon Church announced “new program guidelines for young men ages 14-18” in the letter — guidelines which are also available at ymactivities.lds.org.
In a news release addressing questions about the change, the church explained the reasons behind it: “In most congregations in the United States and Canada, young men ages 14—18 are not being served well by the Varsity or Venturing programs, which have historically been difficult to implement within the Church.”
The proposed change “will allow youth and leaders to implement a simplified program that meets local needs while providing activities that balance spiritual, social, physical and intellectual development goals for young men.”
The church directly addressed the gay and transgender issues in the statement. “The BSA has always allowed the Church to operate its programs in ways that are consistent with our standards and beliefs, and they have been very supportive,” so the LGBT issues are not the primary driver in this decision.
Even so, this marks a huge organizational change. The Mormon Church automatically enrolls every boy who attends a Mormon congregation in the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts programs, so the process of unraveling this full involvement would have to be slow. If the church were to separate from the BSA, this would be the first step.
BSA spokeswoman Effie Delimarkos said that 130,000 boys ages 14—18 participate in Varsity and Venturing through Mormon troops, making up more than 5 percent of the Boy Scouts’ 2.3 million youth members. A full 20 percent of Boy Scouts are Mormon.
Delimarkos also emphasized that the church’s move has nothing to do with LGBT issues. “We’re just not kind of aligning with what the church needs men to focus on,” she admitted.
The Boy Scouts began allowing openly gay scouts in 2013, openly gay scout leaders in 2015, and biological girls who identify as boys earlier this year. The Mormon Church only objected to the 2015 decision about scout leaders, announcing that it was “deeply troubled” and that “the century-long association with Scouting will need to be examined.”
In March, a Boy Scout leader and volunteer cop was charged with 10 counts of raping a 15-year-old boy, perhaps confirming some LDS suspicions.
After the LDS church objected to the 2015 decision, it announced that it would remain with the BSA for the time being, but would “continue to evaluate and refine program options that better meet its global needs.” Thursday’s announcement about the Varsity and Venture programs is the first decision to come from that evaluation.
LDS spokesman Eric Hawkins told The Washington Post that the church eventually wants to pick a youth program in which all Mormons can participate worldwide.
“They’ve been very open about the necessity for a program that would serve global needs,” Delimarkos admitted. “That being said, we know that there’s strength in the Cub Scout and Boy Scout programs, and they see value in it.”
The Mormon Church currently runs its own program for teen girls, and families have complained that it is not as well funded as the boys’ activities.
While the church will withdraw from the older BSA programs at the beginning of next year, it will pay the same registration fees through the end of 2018 to ease the financial strain on the BSA. The church will also continue to support all teenage Mormons who wish to achieve Eagle Scout, the highest rank in scouting.
The Venturing program is used in other churches and secular organizations, including boys and girls in non-Mormon groups, Delimarkos explained. Varsity, which the LDS church used for boys aged 14 to 15, was largely developed for Mormons. The BSA spokeswoman suggested the Boy Scouts may consider abandoning the program altogether.
The BSA’s decisions on homosexuality and transgenderism have angered many conservative Christians and other religious groups, and inspired the launching of alternatives such as Trail Life USA. Earlier this month, the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas ordered its churches to disband all their Girl Scout troops.
As an Eagle Scout, I have been deeply troubled by the BSA’s changes on social issues. But I also made a pledge to serve the Boy Scouts, to help other boys learn to serve others and to achieve their own rank of Eagle Scout. Abandoning the BSA is a difficult process for people like me, and it does not surprise me that the Mormon Church cannot easily sever ties.
Given these personal tensions, I see the LDS organization in a similar position, and can understand their decision to stay with the BSA but to limit their involvement. As the Mormons develop their own teen programs, they might discover how to launch their alternative to the Boy Scouts.
The Mormon Church did not make this move due to LGBT issues, but the division between their worldview and the new cultural trends on sexual ethics may force a full split, and Thursday’s decision would be the logical first step in that separation — and the development of programs to replace the BSA.
So long as the Boy Scouts of America truly allows conservative churches and other organizations to run their troops as they see fit, the group’s national policy on LGBT issues should not be a practical issue. It may tarnish BSA’s brand, but unless it interferes with partners’ ability to live according to their beliefs, it can be accommodated.
But the Mormons have demonstrated that they are ready and willing to reduce their involvement and consider other options. Since the LDS makes up 20 percent of Boy Scouts, it would be wise for the BSA to tread lightly.