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As Boy Scouts of America Becomes Scouts USA, The Mormon Church Severs Ties

It's the end result of a conflict over social values that has been coming to a head for years between Mormons and the BSA.

Marilyn Drew Necci | May 14, 2018

Last week, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) officially announced that they’d be changing their name to Scouts BSA as part of their process in order to become co-ed by 2020. And within a week, the Mormon Church, aka the Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, announced they’d be severing ties with the organization.

In order to understand the full magnitude of this decision, you have to understand just how close the ties are between the BSA and the Mormon Church. The church is one of several organizations that have the designation of “chartered partner,” but that only paints part of the picture. What’s more important to understand is the fact that, for over a century, rather than run a church youth program for boys, the Mormon Church has entered all boys into BSA programs, starting when they’re eight years old. If you were a Mormon boy, you didn’t participate in a church youth group — you joined the Scouts. It was official church policy.

As a result, BSA membership has skewed heavily Mormon. Right now, at a time when the segment of the United States population that belongs to the Mormon Church is around 2 percent according to Wikipedia, the percentage of current Scouts that are Mormon is around 20 percent — 10 times the national average. This has a huge effect on the BSA overall, and has led to a lot of push and pull between the two organizations over the years.

It began in the 70s, when the fact that an African-American scout was pushing for a Patrol Leader position in his troop, but wasn’t allowed to hold the position because the troop was sponsored by the Mormon Church, and Mormons at the time didn’t allow boys to ascend to that level of leadership without having attained priesthood in the Mormon Church. And you see, in the mid-70s, African-Americans were still forbidden from attaining the priesthood in the Mormon Church. Mormons eventually began allowing black priests later in the 1970s, but not before enduring an NAACP suit that hinged upon participation in BSA activities.

More recently, the BSA has been taking strides towards allowing more LGBTQ participation in scouting. This definitely has strained their relationship with the Mormon Church, which only allows gay members if they are “non-practicing,” i.e. celibate. Apparently they’re believers in conversion therapy and “praying the gay away,” too, which UGH. Anyway, the decision to allow gay scouts and scout leaders was only tolerated by the Mormon Church because it merely lifted the ban on gay participation that had previously existed in the BSA’s bylaws, rather than requiring individual troops to allow LGBTQ participation. So the Mormons could still block gay scouts from participating in the scout troops they ran through their church. Awesome.

By David Fine, via FEMA Photo Library/Wikimedia

The most recent changes the BSA have made to become a more inclusive organization, though, are what really set the stage for the church’s withdrawal from their partnership with the BSA. After the BSA announced that they’d allow trans scouts in January of 2017, the Mormon Church withdrew from the BSA’s programs for older youths, capping participation at age 13 and saying “young men ages 14 to 18 are not being served well” by the BSA’s programs.

Now it seems that the BSA’s decision to open membership to girls, and to change its name to remove the emphasis on boys, is too much for the Mormons, and they are pulling out entirely. In a joint statement released May 8, the BSA and the church announced that their relationship would officially end on Dec. 31, 2019, and at that point the church would begin administering an in-house youth program of its own.

At first glance, this seems like a good thing — let the religious extremists stuck in the past go one way, while one of the country’s biggest youth organizations progresses into a brighter, more inclusive future. However, the main concerns raised by those who see this change as potentially troubling relate to the kids caught in the middle of the process. In The Chicago Tribune, Stephen Stromberg wrote about his own experience as a Mormon youth enrolled into the BSA. “In the Boy Scouts, you learned that you shared a lot in common, yet also had to reconcile your beliefs and practices, with Catholics, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and many others,” he wrote. “Growing up Mormon, you are constantly surrounded by other Mormons. The church’s attempt to seal the bubble even tighter does not project confidence in the face of cultural change — it is a retreat from reality.”

Closer to home, Into’s Jamey Jesperson wrote of the way the Mormon Church’s withdrawal from the BSA would hurt LGBTQ youth. “The Mormon Church’s separation from progressive policies such as this is inextricably connected to an ongoing legacy of steadfastness to deeply-rooted sexist and LGBTQ-exclusionary policies,” they wrote. “As social norms and the role of gender in society continue to evolve, the only way that traditional institutions like the Mormon Church will remain relevant to rising generations of youth is if they embrace these waves of change and enact policies to match.”

This decision by the Mormon Church means that Mormon youth will be shielded from experiencing diversity not only of faith and of background but of gender and sexuality as well. And LGBTQ youth within the Mormon church will lose the opportunity to participate in an organization that does not tell them their mere existence is sinful.

However, in the grander scheme of things, the fact that Scouts BSA have taken this direction is an overall win, with over 3,000 girls participating in BSA’s Early Adopter program, allowing girls in certain areas to join scout troops before the official rollout of the new gender-inclusive program nationwide in early 2019. Certainly this will be a positive development for the many girls across the country who don’t feel served by the programs they’re usually allowed into — of which there are plenty, if current indicators are to be believed. It’s a shame the Mormon Church isn’t willing to be part of that.