Mor­mons pull youth from Boy Scouts

Break be­tween org and church ends cen­tury-old union

Orlando Sentinel - - NATION & WORLD - By Brady McCombs and David Crary

KAYSVILLE, Utah — For decades, The Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter-day Saints was one of Boy Scouts of Amer­ica’s great­est al­lies and the largest spon­sor of troops. But on Jan. 1, the Utah-based faith will de­liver the lat­est blow to the strug­gling or­ga­ni­za­tion when it pulls out more than 400,000 young peo­ple and moves them into a new global pro­gram of its own.

The change brings ex­cite­ment and some melan­choly for mem­bers of the faith and may push the Boy Scouts closer to the brink of bank­ruptcy as it faces a new wave of sex abuse law­suits.

Los­ing the church will mean about an 18% drop in Boy Scout youth mem­ber­ship com­pared with last year’s num­bers and mark the first time since the World War II era that the fig­ure will fall be­low 2 mil­lion. At its peak in the 1970s, more than 4 mil­lion boys were Scouts.

Wayne Perry, a church mem­ber who is a past pres­i­dent of Boy Scouts of Amer­ica and a cur­rent mem­ber of its na­tional board, said the end of the long-term al­liance will sting and force many re­gional coun­cils in the U.S. West to lay off em­ploy­ees and sell some camps.

How­ever, Perry said he’s hope­ful the Boy Scouts can even­tu­ally bring back at least 20% of the Lat­ter-day Saints Scouts who liked the ex­pe­ri­ence and want to keep pur­su­ing merit badges in ac­tiv­i­ties rang­ing from camp­ing and life­sav­ing to citizenshi­p.

The church’s new youth pro­gram will weave in camp­ing and other out­door ac­tiv­i­ties in parts of the world where that’s fea­si­ble, but there won’t be uni­forms or a chance to earn the cov­eted Ea­gle Scout rank — the high­est in Scout­ing — that was long seen as a key mile­stone for teenage boys in the church. The focus will be squarely on re­li­gion and spir­i­tual devel­op­ment, with youth work­ing to­ward achieve­ments that earn them rings, medal­lions and pen­dants in­scribed with im­ages of church tem­ples.

Perry un­der­stands why the faith widely known as the Mor­mon church wants a pro­gram it can use world­wide be­cause more than half its mem­bers live out­side the U.S. and Canada, where the Boy Scouts isn’t avail­able. But he pre­dicts that a heavy em­pha­sis on the gospel may leave some young church mem­bers who al­ready go to two-hour church ser­vices each Sun­day and other Bi­ble stud­ies long­ing for Boy Scouts.

“One of the ad­van­tages we al­ways had with Scout­ing is that it wasn’t ‘churchy,’ ” Perry said. “They were get­ting the Scout oath and the Scout law, which are in­cred­i­bly com­pat­i­ble with the church’s philoso­phies and views, but they weren’t read­ing out of the Book of Mor­mon.”

“I think there will be a boomerang ef­fect as par­ents see that there is still a place for Scout­ing,” he added.

The split be­tween the Boy Scouts and church ends a nearly cen­tury-old re­la­tion­ship be­tween two or­ga­ni­za­tions that were brought to­gether by shared val­ues but have di­verged in re­cent years. Amid de­clin­ing mem­ber­ship, the Boy Scouts of Amer­ica opened its arms to openly gay youth mem­bers and adult vol­un­teers as well as girls and trans­gen­der boys, while the church be­lieves that same­sex in­ti­macy is a sin.

“The re­al­ity there is we didn’t re­ally leave them; they kind of left us,” high­rank­ing church leader M. Rus­sell Bal­lard re­cently said about the split.

His com­ment up­set Boy

Scout of­fi­cials, Perry said, be­cause the or­ga­ni­za­tion went to great lengths to en­sure the faith still had ro­bust re­li­gious lib­erty pro­tec­tions af­ter the Scouts wel­comed openly gay troop mem­bers and lead­ers — even al­low­ing the church to craft the lan­guage.

Perry said the or­ga­ni­za­tion will now focus on pitch­ing the ben­e­fits of Boy Scouts in parts of the U.S. West with many church mem­bers, in­clud­ing Utah, Idaho and Ari­zona. Pre­vi­ously, ev­ery con­gre­ga­tion had a Boy Scout troop and boys were au­to­mat­i­cally signed up.

“We’re go­ing to have to earn our kids,” Perry said.

That legacy runs deep in the Francis fam­ily in Utah, who are long­time mem­bers of the faith. Mark Francis, his two old­est sons, his broth­ers and his fa­ther all have been Ea­gle Scouts.

He and his wife, Net­tie Francis, couldn’t imag­ine not giv­ing their three youngest sons the same op­por­tu­nity, so they launched a new Boy Scout troop ear­lier this year to carry on the tra­di­tion af­ter the church al­liance ends. Most of its 40 boys are church mem­bers and also will par­tic­i­pate in the faith’s new youth pro­gram.

Net­tie Francis said she’s not wor­ried about jug­gling it all.

“This is like any other ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­ity: We make time for things that are im­por­tant to us,” she said. “For our fam­ily, the skills and the lead­er­ship op­por­tu­ni­ties that Scout­ing of­fers are just tremen­dous.”

At a re­cent troop meet­ing on a cold, rainy night in Kaysville, Utah, the boys gath­ered in a barn be­hind the Francis fam­ily’s house and started with a prayer. They closed their eyes and folded their arms as is typ­i­cal for Lat­ter-day Saints. Af­ter belt­ing out the Pledge of Al­le­giance and Scout oath, they pre­pared Dutch oven peach cob­blers and then went to a nearby as­sisted liv­ing cen­ter to sing Christ­mas car­ols.

Baden Francis, 12, said he’s happy he can keep go­ing to camp, have fun with friends and hope­fully one day be­come an Ea­gle Scout like his big broth­ers.

Mark Francis called the split a good move for both sides. The church gets the global youth pro­gram it long wanted, and the Boy Scouts of Amer­ica gets rid of kids who didn’t like it.

“Scout­ing will be smaller, but stronger,” he said.

As of 2013, there were more than 430,000 Lat­ter­day Saint boys in the Boy Scouts. The lat­est tally of the Scouts’ to­tal youth mem­ber­ship was about 2.2 mil­lion last year, and its press of­fice con­firmed that the church ex­o­dus would push that num­ber close to 1.8 mil­lion.

The Scouts de­clined to es­ti­mate the fi­nan­cial reper­cus­sions of the faith’s de­par­ture, say­ing the church paid a flat fee that var­ied from year to year, rather than pay­ing based on in­di­vid­ual mem­ber­ship fees.

Boy Scout mem­ber­ship has been de­clin­ing steadily for sev­eral decades, due to a va­ri­ety of fac­tors, in­clud­ing the al­lure of video games and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of youth sports leagues. Even with the ad­mis­sion of 150,000 girls, and the ex­ten­sion of the Cub Scout pro­gram to kinder­gart­ners, there’s been no sign that the de­cline will end soon.

The split with the church comes at a chal­leng­ing time for the Boy Scouts, which for years has been en­tan­gled in costly lit­i­ga­tion with men ac­cus­ing Scout lead­ers of abus­ing them as chil­dren. Hun­dreds of new law­suits loom af­ter New York, New Jersey, Ari­zona and Cal­i­for­nia en­acted laws mak­ing it eas­ier for vic­tims of long-ago abuse to seek dam­ages.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion, head­quar­tered in Irving, Texas, says it’s ex­plor­ing “all avail­able op­tions” to main­tain its pro­grams and has not ruled out the pos­si­bil­ity of fil­ing for bank­ruptcy.

Seek­ing to ease some of the fi­nan­cial pres­sure, the Scouts an­nounced in Oc­to­ber that the an­nual mem­ber­ship fee for its youth mem­bers will rise from $33 to $60, while the fee for adult vol­un­teers will rise from $33 to $36. The news dis­mayed many local Scout lead­ers, who had al­ready started reg­is­tra­tion for the com­ing year.

Last month, the Scouts con­firmed it had mort­gaged one of its most spec­tac­u­lar prop­er­ties, the vast Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mex­ico, to help se­cure a line of credit. The or­ga­ni­za­tion said it had no plans to sell and is us­ing the land as col­lat­eral to help meet fi­nan­cial needs, in­clud­ing ris­ing in­sur­ance costs re­lated to sex abuse lit­i­ga­tion.

RICK BOWMER/AP

A Lat­ter-day Saints-based Boy Scout troop gath­ers at a Dec. 12 meet­ing in Kaysville, Utah.

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