- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Boy Scouts of America experienced a modest dip in membership in 2013, but not the mass exodus that some social conservatives predicted while it was considering changing its membership policy on gays.

Boy Scouts membership fell by 6 percent last year, leaving it with nearly 2.5 million youth members and 960,000 adult members.

Reasons for the attrition, which is slightly greater than the 4 percent losses in 2012 and similar-sized declines in several previous years, are not fully understood but are likely related to the divisive vote on admitting openly gay youths to Scouts as well as a 60 percent increase in annual membership dues.

It’s “impossible to point to any single factor that influences our membership numbers,” Deron Smith, director of communications for Boy Scouts of America, said Wednesday.

But on social media sites the May vote on gay youths has been cited as a factor, and Trail Life USA, a Christian-based, outdoor, character-building group for boys and young men, says Boy Scout defectors are driving its quick growth.

Trail Life USA “is seeing tremendous growth,” said Mark Hancock, chief operating officer. Some 540 troops are active or in the chartering process, and the number of boys per troop is closer to 40, almost double initial projections, Mr. Hancock said.

Sixty percent of Trail Life members are former Boy Scouts, he said. The group was created in September by disaffected Boy Scout members.

The BSA’s Mr. Smith said Boy Scout figures fluctuate because recruitment is year-round and the change to youth membership policy was intended to allow the organization to “serve more kids.”

The Boy Scouts‘ new youth policy was strongly supported by the organization’s top leaders and accepted by Mormon, Catholic and other prominent sponsoring organizations.

Gay-rights groups, such as Scouting for Equality and GLAAD, applauded the vote to admit openly gay youths but immediately asked the century-old organization to go further and admit openly gay adults, too.

The change for youths was too much for many religious sponsors and members, who preferred the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and feared that gay advocacy would be woven into Scouting. Some evangelical leaders, such as Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, predicted “a mass exodus” of traditional, orthodox Christianity from the Boy Scouts.

The Boy Scouts‘ policy banning open or avowed gay adults as leaders, employees or volunteers was not up for consideration last year, and “there are no plans for further review of this matter,” Mr. Smith said.

Gay-rights groups and their allies have made it clear that they do not accept that status quo, however.

Recently, 17-year-old Pascal Tessier of Kensington, Md., became the first openly gay youth to become an Eagle Scout. Pascal said he was relieved and happy to achieve the honor but intends to apply to be a Boy Scout leader when he turns 18 “to push the issue.”

“Congratulations Pascal! So proud of you. We’re going to win this fight because of people like you,” Zach Wahls, founder of Scouts of Equality, said on his Facebook page this week. Mr. Wahls, an Eagle Scout raised by two lesbian mothers, created his organization to overturn the Boy Scouts‘ policy on gays.

The 2014 membership fee of $24, up from $15, was needed for administration costs, which include liability insurance and increased costs of criminal background checks for adults, the Boy Scouts said in a statement last year. The increase was “absolutely not” related to the membership policy change because the fee was discussed long before the vote, the statement said.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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