National News

Mormon Church Ends Century-Old Partnership With Boy Scouts of America

Posted May 9, 2018 9:19 p.m. EDT
Updated May 9, 2018 9:24 p.m. EDT

The Mormon church and the Boy Scouts of America formed a partnership 105 years ago based on shared beliefs in God, country and the necessity of teaching morals and responsibility to boys. The groups became so intertwined that 1 of every 5 Boy Scouts in the United States is Mormon, and all Mormon boys were expected to participate in Scouting.

Now that arrangement is coming to an end. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said Tuesday that it was severing ties with the Boy Scouts and would design its own youth programs that could be implemented in its congregations around the world. The decision, which was made jointly with the Boy Scouts, will take effect at the end of next year.

The change will also close the inequality in programming for Mormon boys and girls, a spokesman for the church said. The church had no Scouting program for girls. Their church activities usually involved lessons in cooking, grooming, making handicrafts and learning the tenets of the faith, depending on the inclinations of the adults in charge.

“I have very mixed feelings about Scouts,” said Sumer Thurston Evans, the mother of two sets of boy-girl twins who has served as a Cub Scout leader. “I really love the Scouts and think it’s a good program that teaches good skills to the boys. But what broke my heart was the disparity between the boys’ programs and the girls’ programs.”

The Mormon church was the Boy Scouts’ first Scouting sponsor in the United States, but the two organizations, once so in sync, had begun charting different paths. In the last five years, the Boy Scouts began admitting gay and transgender Scouts, and ended its ban on openly gay adult leaders. This month the Scouting organization announced it would change its name to “Scouts BSA” by next February and start welcoming older girls.

The Mormon church, meanwhile, teaches that gay relationships are sinful. It has separate programs for boys and girls, and has distinct leadership roles for men and women. Only men can be ordained as priests.

The church, based in Utah, now claims 16 million members in nearly 200 countries, but its Scout program served boys mostly in North America.

Eric Hawkins, director of media relations for the church, said the change, under discussion for more than a decade, will allow the church to institute a youth program that is rooted in church teaching and translatable across countries and cultures. It will also reduce the disparities that have existed in the programs for boys and girls, though it will continue to keep them separate, he said.

“The intent is that the resources, time commitment, opportunities, activities and budgets would be the same for boys and girls,” he said.

A group of church leaders already responsible for youths — including men and women from various countries — will spend the next year and a half developing and testing the new youth program around the world, allowing for local adaptations.

Rich Baker, who served for seven years as a scoutmaster for Troop 66 in Belmont, Massachusetts, said he was sorry to see the church drop Scouting, but that it “was never quite fully embraced.”

There were Mormon troops like his, he said, where everybody made it to Eagle Scout, the highest rank. “But more typical was, you just show up and play basketball,” he said.

“Scouting was almost its own religion,” and the commitment required was not compatible with a church that depends on an all-volunteer clergy, Baker said. “It was two things that never quite melded.”

The Scouts will still welcome Mormon youth into local packs and troops, said Effie Delimarkos, a spokeswoman for the Boy Scouts of America. She said that 28 of 266 local councils would be “significantly affected” with the Mormon church dropping out, but that the organization would rebound.

“We are confident that our decision to welcome boys and girls into our programs will attract even more families and youth to Scouting,” Delimarkos said. “We’ve already seen a tremendous initial response to our decision to welcome girls into Cub Scouting through the ‘Early Adopter’ program, through which nearly 4,000 girls have already registered.”

Mormons reacted to the decision with a wide range of emotions. Some were relieved that the required camping trips and the annual collection for Boy Scouts — but never girls’ programs — would come to an end. Others mourned the end of a collaboration that brought Mormon children into contact with non-Mormons, and taught the boys grit.

Mormon boys across the country have been hustling to finish getting their merit badges before the church formally ends the program in December 2019. Among them is Jessamyn Thurston’s 13-year-old son, the nephew of Evans, who had just completed three months of daily running, situps and push-ups and was expecting to get his merit badge for physical fitness on Wednesday. It was the last badge he needed before making Eagle Scout.

“He’s a homebody, he didn’t like hiking or camping or fishing, or he didn’t when he started the program,” said Thurston, but he went on a monthly campout for the last three years.

She said, “The lessons that has taught him, in terms of leadership, and showing up and being part of the team, I would be hard pressed to find in another venue.”