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Will Mormons’ departure from the Boy Scouts open the door for girls’ equality?

After more than a century of Mormon attention to boys' development through the Boy Scout program, it’s past time to direct our time and money to LDS girls the world over.

Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles participates in the groundbreaking of the Thomas S. Monson Leadership Excellence Complex with local Boy Scouts in Glen Jean, W.Va., on June 15, 2016. Photo courtesy of Intellectual Reserve, Inc./Mark Romesser

(RNS) — Miranda was a teenager when she first learned of a very basic inequality between boys and girls in her ward (as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints calls its local congregations). The amount budgeted for the boys’ Scouting activities was significantly higher than what was reserved for the Mormons’ program for girls ages 12 to 18, known as Young Women.

“I was upset about that,” says Miranda, now in her mid-30s. “It was like, ‘Here’s a dollar figure attached to how much less I am valued than the Young Men in the ward.’”

It’s often said that budgets are moral documents, a point the teen Miranda seemed to recognize instinctively. Budgets reveal what we’re willing to invest our resources in.

And for much of Mormon history, that has not been girls.

For over a hundred years, the LDS Church has partnered with the Boy Scouts of America to provide activities for tween and teen boys, as a vital part of the church’s Young Men program. Most Mormon congregations have at least one Boy Scout troop. Boys are encouraged to work toward the rank of Eagle Scout, an achievement celebrated by the local ward and marked in Mormon Sunday church meetings. 

The Young Women, by contrast, have felt more like an afterthought. They have a Personal Progress program, but their accomplishments are largely invisible, except to their parents and leaders. Those who complete the requirements aren’t heralded in nearly the same public way the Boy Scouts are, with their Eagle Court of Honor.

Mormon boys have enjoyed High Adventure camps and important responsibilities at church. Until very recently, girls have made crafts and learned to bake cookies.

This week (May 8), the LDS Church announced that it is severing its century-long relationship with the Boy Scoutsa decision that, as I’ve written previously, likely reflects church elders’ worries about retaining young people more than any fears about LGBT Scouts or other cultural changes.

The Church has announced that in the place of Boy Scouts and the various programs previously used for girls, a new “children and youth development initiative” will be implemented in 2020 throughout the worldwide church.

Is it possible that with this new program, Mormon boys and girls might now get the best of all possible worlds?

That everyone will get to go on whitewater rafting adventures, and everyone will learn to cook and prepare for adult living?

Because these activities are important for everyone. The skills that girls have traditionally learned at church — things like baking and making freezer jam and discovering relational intelligence — are strong foundations for living on one’s own. So are the survival and leadership skills that Scouting has emphasized for boys.

Details of the program have not been released, so we don’t know what this initiative will look like. That hasn’t stopped me from dreaming of a world in which …

  • Mormon boys and girls will be ministered to based on their needs and interests, not pigeonholed into certain activities based solely on their gender.
  • The gender segregation that begins at age 8 will not continue, or at least will be severely curtailed.
  • Boys and girls will learn to serve and make decisions together as equals.
  • Girls will join boys in having leadership responsibilities that are more than just window dressing.

Some of this is already happening, at least in a limited fashion. Earlier this year, for example, the Church quietly rolled out a simplified program for Young Women camp. The streamlined manual stressed the importance of girls’ leadership in every aspect of planning camp.

And last month in the LDS General Conference, an outgoing general leader of the Young Women organization pleaded for girls to have important responsibilities in church. “They want to be of service,” said Bonnie Oscarson. “They need to know they are valued and essential in the work of salvation.” (For a full report of General Conference, see here.) The Church’s new “ministering” program may be an avenue for this greater involvement of Young Women in the mission of the Church.

The bottom line is that after more than a century of attention to boys and their development, it’s past time to direct our time and money to LDS girls the world over. If we want to keep them active and engaged, we can’t continue belittling them in our budgets and limiting their contributions to our communities.

(Jana Riess is a senior columnist for RNS, where she writes the “Flunking Sainthood” column.)

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