SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Mormon church, the largest sponsor of Boy Scouts troops in the United States, announced Thursday it is pulling older teenagers from the organization as the religion takes a step toward developing its own global scouting-like program.
The Utah-based religion’s announcement means an estimated 130,000-180,000 teenagers ages 14-18 will no longer participate in Boy Scouts starting next year, a significant loss for the Boy Scouts of America. Younger Mormon boys will remain in Boy Scouts.
The faith said the decision wasn’t triggered by Boy Scouts policy change in 2015 to allow gay troop leaders since Mormon troops were allowed to run their groups to adhere to church teachings.
The loss is only a fraction of the 2.3 million youth in Boy Scouts, but the organization has been grappling with declining membership for years and has enjoyed a close bond with the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for more than a century.
Boy Scouts is a rite of passage for Mormon boys, with the church covering the cost of troops for congregations, known as wards, and strongly encouraging participation.
Boy Scouts of American spokeswoman Effie Delimarkos said the organization is saddened about the decision but understands the need for the religion to customize its programming.
She said the organization’s membership figures show the decision will impact 130,000 Mormon teens in this age group.
Figures provided by the Mormon church say the change will impact 180,000 boys.
Mormon officials said in a news release that it will keep some 280,000 younger boys ages 8-13 in Scouts while it continues to develop a global scouting-type program.
Boy Scouts is only available in the U.S. and Canada and more than half of the religion’s nearly 16 million members live in other countries.
Like other conservative religions, the Mormon church still opposes gay marriage and teaches its members that being in a homosexual relationship is a sin.
The church initially said it was “deeply troubled” by the Boy Scouts policy change but later committed to sticking with the Boy Scouts after getting assurances that 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 farther, the organization reported a strong 2016 with youth membership on the verge of 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 if that’s in accordance with their religious doctrine.
Mormon church officials said the Boy Scouts’ “Varsity” and “Venturing” programs for older teenagers had become difficult to implement within the religion. Instead, the religion will use a simplified program to work on “spiritual, social, physical an intellectual” goals for the teenagers, the church said.
The church has been working on an overarching global program for years. The initiative involving the teens deals with the immediate need. The church did not provide a timeline for rollout of the program that will be for all age groups.
Mormons who want to work toward an Eagle Scout award can continue to do so.
(© Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)