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It is not the end of Mormonism's longtime alliance with the Boys Scouts of America, but it could be a step in that direction.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced Thursday that, come January, it is dropping BSA programs known as Varsity and Venturing for boys ages 14 to 18.
This break will affect, to some degree, more than 130,000 Mormon boys in the United States and 55,000 in Canada.
The Utah-based faith will continue to use the Cub Scout and Boy Scout programs for boys ages 8 through 13, amounting to more than 280,000 LDS kids.
The Varsity and Venturing courses are not serving the needs of the LDS boys involved, the church said in a statement, and have been "difficult to implement" in Mormon congregations.
Instead, the church will engage these youths in activities that are focused on "spiritual, social, physical and intellectual goals outlined by the church," the statement said. They are "designed to be fun, meaningful and provide opportunities for personal growth and development."
The church has noted previously that it is looking to develop its own program to serve the faith's young people around the world and this move and the accompanying statement reinforce that it is still aiming toward that end.
"This is not the global program, but an important step that addresses an immediate need," the statement reads. " … The church continues to work toward developing a program for young men and young women globally."
The worldwide faith's governing First Presidency also issued a letter explaining the change and directing its lay clergy in the U.S. and Canada on how to implement it.
"We express sincere appreciation and gratitude to all adult leaders who have supported young men in these programs," the letter states, "and are grateful for our long-standing and continuing partnership with the Boy Scouts of America and Scouts Canada."
BSA spokeswoman Effie Delimarkos said national leaders understand and support the move as one the LDS Church believes will better serve its older youths, and expressed hope that the denomination will continue to be a major partner in Cub Scouts and traditional Boy Scouts.
"Only our chartered organization partners know what works for them," she said. "While we hoped it would be a perfect match all the way through, we absolutely support the organization's needs to adjust and customize the programs that work best for their community."
Gay policy not a factor • The LDS Church said the action to discontinue the older classes has nothing to do with BSA's openness to gay and transgender Scouts and leaders, though the faith previously expressed deep concerns about some of those developments.
The LDS Church has permitted and does permit openly gay Mormons to serve in church assignments, including the Boy Scouts. But these members are deemed to be living the faith's standards, meaning they are not acting on their same-sex attractions.
The BSA makes no such distinctions between "openly gay" and "sexually active gay leaders." So a gay Scout leader can have a partner or a same-sex spouse. That troubled the Mormon brass.
But the BSA "has always allowed the church to operate its programs in ways that are consistent with our standards and beliefs,"the faith noted, "and they have been very supportive."
As for gay Scouts, the church insists "sexual orientation has not previously been and is not now a disqualifying factor for boys who want to join Latter-day Saint Scout troops."
Recent talk of expanding the BSA ranks to include girls and young women did not factor into the church's move either. "Our decision to end our participation in the Varsity and Venturing programs," it stated, "was made independent of this possibility and before that time."
The possibility of an eventual Mormon exodus from BSA would mark a monumental shift. LDS authorities have long been stalwart Scouting backers, holding top leadership positions in the all-boys organization. Church President Thomas S. Monson has earned Silver Beaver, Silver Buffalo, Silver Fox and Bronze Wolf honors, and a national state-of-the-art Scouting leadership complex under construction in West Virginia will bear his name. A 23,000-square-foot Scout lodge in eastern Utah's Uintas is also named after Monson.
Thinning the ranks and the funding • Even this change may significantly impact Scouting at the national and local levels financially and logistically.
The national BSA could lose nearly 6 percent of its total Scouts through the change 130,000 of its total 2.3 million, or one of every 18, Delimarkos said. But it may not lose all 130,000 because some of the older Mormon boys may wish to work toward their Eagle rank, and the church said it will continue to register and encourage them.
The LDS Church had been Scouting's No. 1 sponsor of units, involving about 470,000 Mormon boys in the United States and Canada. With the change, Delimarkos said, "the LDS Church would still be one of the top partners. ... That's still a strong community within Scouting."
When asked if national Scout leaders worry about further Mormon cutbacks, she said, "the church has assured us that the Cub Scout and Boy Scout programs continue to meet the needs of youth and serve the needs of the community, so we are encouraged by that."
An all-out LDS Church withdrawal would decimate the Beehive State's three Scout councils, which report between 96 percent and 99 percent of their members are in Mormon units. LDS-sponsored Boy Scout troops and Cub Scout packs will remain, of course, for the younger boys.
For now, "We'll lose some membership. I think we'll be able to retain a lot of the boys over 14 who are working toward Eagle or enjoy the high-adventure aspects of Scouting," said Mark Griffin, Scout executive of the Salt Lake City-based Great Salt Lake Council.
Since about 40 percent of Mormon youths now in Scout units are ages 14 to 18 and participate, to some degree, in Varsity or Venturing, it would appear that national Scouting organizations stand to lose about 40 percent of registration fees the LDS Church has provided.
The national BSA normally charges a $24 registration fee for each Scout and adult leader per year. However, a 2015 statement from the three BSA councils in Utah said those fees "are negotiated between the national BSA and the LDS Church. All registration fees are retained at the national BSA level."
The church's Thursday statement indicated it is seeking to ease the financial effect its partial withdrawal may have on national Scouting.
"The church will continue to make the same payment to the BSA for registration of its young men through 2018," it said, "so there should be a minimal impact to Scouting."
Friends of Scouting • In addition, the church will continue to participate in Friends of Scouting, funding drives that seek donations from Mormons and others to help finance Scout councils that administer local programs, Scout shops and camps. The money does not go directly to the youths in donors' congregations.
Griffin with the Great Salt Lake Council which receives about a third of its funding from such funding pushes hopes the donations will remain about the same.
"Some may say, 'We're not doing Varsity and Venturing, and that's what my son is, so I'm not going to donate,' " he said. "Some may have the impression that the church is leaving Scouting entirely. But that's not the case."
Friends of Scouting has been controversial because of sometimes-high salaries for leaders of local councils. For example, the most-recent public income tax filings by those councils show total compensation (including benefits) of $341,789 a year for Rick Barnes, now-retired leader of the Salt Lake City-based Great Salt Lake Council; $236,267 for David Pack, head of the Orem-based Utah National Parks Council; and $210,528 for Allen Endicott, who guides the Ogden-based Trapper Trails Council.
In 2015, the Utah National Parks Council said Friends of Scouting provided 43 percent of its budget; the Trapper Trails Council said it generated 36 percent; and the Great Salt Lake Council received 34 percent of its money from the effort.
A joint statement from those three councils at the time said, "The large majority of Friends of Scouting funds comes from LDS units."
Griffin said older LDS youths who are no longer part of Scouting still may be able to use Great Salt Lake Council camps.
"It would be based on availability just like any other not-for-profit youth group. Since the church is still a primary charter partner with Scouting, we'll try to accommodate them. But obviously our priority is going to be Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts."
He added that the camps "are already pretty full" with Scout groups.
In 2015, the three councils addressed questions about what may happen to the many Scout camps in Utah if the LDS Church exited the organization entirely.
They then wrote, "All camp properties are either owned by the council or are leased properties from the Forest Service. Each council is a 501(c)(3) corporation separate from the Boy Scouts of America or any other council. The properties would continue to serve Scouting and the needs of religious and other youth groups in our communities."
Future of Varsity and Venturing • The change announced Thursday could spur a reworking of Varsity and Venturing nationally.
Delimarkos said Varsity, which the LDS Church has used for 14- and 15-year-olds, is rarely used by non-Mormon units. "We are going to be looking at it in terms of utility beyond LDS communities, but for the most part it was best utilized and most utilized by LDS troops."
She noted that most non-Mormon groups tap traditional Boy Scout troops to retain and serve boys ages 14 to 18, although Venturing, Exploring, STEM Scouts and Sea Scouts are also used.
Delimarkos said about half the nation's participants in Venturing which the LDS Church used for 16- and 17-year-olds are Mormons.
"We've seen Venturing be successful for many communities," she said. "We will continue to evaluate Venturing, just as we do all of the programs, to see if there are any updates that we need to consider."
But even LDS boys were "not being served well" by the Varsity and Venturing programs, according to the church.
Dennis Stone bishop of the Oxford Mormon Ward in West Valley City, a former Varsity coach and a former Scoutmaster who has worked with Scouts for more than 30 years agreed with that assessment.
"If a young man is not close to earning his Eagle by the time he is 14, he has little interest in continuing in Scouting," he said. "The problem is that once boys turn 14, their social world opens up with girls and their interest in Scouting seems to dwindle. They don't want to go camping anymore. Those who do, stay with [traditional] Boy Scouts."
Stone argues that the church's separate Duty to God program, which focuses more on Mormon topics "actually works better with the kids over 14 than Varsity and Venturing," in part, "because they are easier for the leaders to do" than the more complicated and involved Scouting programs.
Mormon officials point out that this latest move will help bridge the gap between what the faith spends on its Young Men programs and its Young Women offerings. Right now, largely because of Scouting, much more money flows toward the boys than the girls.
"This new program brings the spending into balance for youth ages 14 through 18," the church stated. "This will continue to be a factor in the ongoing exploration and creation of a worldwide youth program."
Editor David Noyce contributed to this story.