- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2014

The adventure organization for boys formed in protest after the Boy Scouts of America eased its membership policies on gays in Scouting is growing “like wildfire” in its first full year, fueled by what organizers say is a hunger for a program that will help parents raise godly men.

Last September, the “unapologetically Christian” Trail Life USA unveiled its name, logo and other defining elements at a conference in Nashville, Tennessee.

The organization, which will mark its official anniversary Jan. 1, has 450 troops with more than 14,000 members in 47 states, said Mark Hancock, Trail Life USA chief executive officer.

Nearly 300 more troops are in the chartering process, he said, and we “have averaged 345 new members each week” over the past three weeks.

It’s “growing like wildfire,” Rob Green, national director of field operations, told a Florida radio show in August.

This is because Trail Life USA’s mission is to help “the boy of today become the man of tomorrow” and produce “godly and responsible husbands, fathers and citizens,” leaders told a July training session at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, Virginia.

The vision is to “be here not just for our own sons, but to be a father to the fatherless — show them they have a heavenly Father,” said John Stemberger, Trail Life USA’s chairman of the board, told the audience of more than 200 men and youths.

The catalyst for Trail Life USA occurred in May 2013.

After a closely watched public debate and growing corporate sponsor pressure, more than 1,000 leaders of the Boy Scouts of America voted to change the policy for the 104-year-old organization to prohibit denial of youth membership “on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone.”

The decision to admit openly gay youths — which was intended to make the Boy Scouts more inclusive — was largely applauded, although gay rights groups and activists continued to criticize the organization for not changing its rules disallowing “known or avowed homosexuals” to be adult leaders, volunteers or employees.

In February, the Boy Scouts of America reported a dip in membership in 2013, but not the mass exodus some people predicted. It’s “impossible to point to any single factor that influences our membership numbers,” Deron Smith, director of communications for the Boy Scouts of America, said of the membership rolls falling by 6 percent to around 2.5 million youth members and 960,000 adult members.

This year’s selection of former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates as the Boy Scouts national president was seen as a savvy step to help the venerable group strengthen itself and move away from controversy. Mr. Gates, a highly decorated Scout, said he considered the membership issue settled.

The Boy Scouts this year upheld its adult policy, revoking the charter of a Seattle church after it refused to remove a scoutmaster who had told a news station that he was gay.

For many members, however, the May 2013 vote was a step too far, and a core group of disaffected Scouts met soon afterward to plan an alternative group with a Christian worldview.

At the July training session in Virginia, Trail Life USA leaders, who refer to themselves as Trailmen, said their group, unlike the Boy Scouts, has decentralized leadership. They also said it is volunteer-driven, debt-averse and largely chartered and operated by churches.

“Biblical values” are woven throughout Trail Life programs, and the organization welcomes parents, families and boys of all faiths who are looking for a leadership and adventure program with “moral consistency and ethical integrity.” All adult Trail Life USA leaders must sign a statement of faith and values that begins, “We believe there is one triune God.”

The most notable difference is that Trail Life USA’s membership policy says its members must not “engage in or promote sexual immorality of any kind, or engage in behavior that would be a distraction to the mission of the program.”

Sexual activity outside the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman is “sinful before God and therefore inconsistent with the values and principles of the program,” the policy says.

Trail Life youth membership is open only to those younger than 18 who are “biologically male.”

In his remarks to the Virginia training session, Mr. Hancock said Trail Life USA was resonating with many American families because it was “not content” with how the culture is teaching or leading boys.

Traditional values “are not fading,” Mr. Hancock said. “I really believe Trail Life USA is for such a time as this,” he said. “Heroes need apply.”

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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