SALT LAKE CITY – The Mormon church, the biggest sponsor of Boy Scout troops in the United States, announced Thursday it is pulling as many as 185,000 older youths from the organization as part of an effort to start its own scouting-like program.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said the move wasn't triggered by the Boy Scouts' decision in 2015 to allow gay troop leaders, since Mormon-sponsored troops have remained free to exclude such adults on religious grounds.
But at least one leading Mormon scholar said that the Boy Scouts and the church have been diverging on values in recent years and that the policy on gays was probably a contributing factor in the split.
Saying it wants a new, simplified program of its own that is more closely tailored to Mormon teenagers, the church announced that boys ages 14 to 18 will no longer participate in the Boy Scouts starting next year. The church said the decision will affect 185,000 teens; the Boy Scouts put the number at 130,000.
The loss is only a small portion of the 2.3 million youths in the Boy Scouts of America, but the organization has been grappling with declining membership for years and has enjoyed an unusually close bond with the Mormon church for more than a century because of their shared values. Joining the Boy Scouts is practically automatic among Mormon boys.
Boy Scouts of America spokeswoman Effie Delimarkos said the organization is saddened by the decision but understands the church's desire to customize a program.
About 280,000 Mormon boys ages 8 to 13 will remain in the Scouts while the church develops its program, the Mormons said. The Boy Scouts estimated their number at 330,000. The church did not say when the younger boys will be withdrawn from the Boy Scouts.
Bryan Burton, a 26-year-old Mormon in Salt Lake City, said the decision makes sense. He likes the idea that the church is moving toward its own scouting program.
"We're trying to be an inclusive church worldwide," Burton said. "If our Boy Scouts is only for boys in America, what are we doing for the rest of the world?"
Like other conservative faiths, the Mormon church opposes gay marriage and teaches that being in a homosexual relationship is a sin. The church initially said it was "deeply troubled" by the Boy Scouts' policy change on gays but stayed with the organization after receiving assurances it could appoint troop leaders according to its own religious and moral values.
In Thursday's announcement, the church said that it learned recently that the Boy Scouts are considering admitting girls, but that its decision was made independently of that.
Matthew Bowman, a Mormon scholar and history professor at Henderson State University, said the schism reflects the two organizations' diverging values, with gays and girls among the issues on which they are moving apart.
"The church is wedded very much to traditional gender roles and they see the Boy Scouts of America increasingly move away from that," Bowman said. "That means that they have come to see it as less of a hospitable place."
Thursday's announcement represents a first step toward something that has been in the works for years: a Mormon-run scouting-type program that could be used in congregations around the world. The church has 15.8 million members, nearly 6 in 10 of them outside the U.S. and Canada. The programs the church uses with the Boy Scouts of America are only available in the U.S. and Canada.
"The long game here is the church looking forward to a time when Americans are even more of a minority in the church than they are now," Bowman said.
Mormon teenagers who want to continue working toward the Eagle Scout rank will be able to do that on their own while also participating in the new program, said church spokesman Eric Hawkins.
The Boy Scout movement has been entrenched in Mormon culture for as long as anyone can remember.
In 2013, the church put on an extravagant theatrical production inside its 21,000-seat auditorium in Salt Lake City to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the faith's alliance with the Boy Scouts.
A Boy Scout training complex in West Virginia is named after Mormon church President Thomas S. Monson, a longtime member of the Boy Scouts' executive board and a major supporter. Charles Dahlquist II, a Mormon, holds the top volunteer position with the Boy Scouts.
Becoming an Eagle Scout is an especially proud badge of honor within Mormon culture. Many Utah lawmakers list it on their resumes. Social media was buzzing with jokes Thursday about Mormon women adjusting their hopes of finding a husband who was an Eagle Scout.
This story has been corrected to show that the Mormon church says 185,000 teenagers will no longer participate in the Boy Scouts, not 180,000.