By Gina Cherelus
(Reuters) - The Mormon church said on Thursday it is no longer participating in two Boy Scouts of America programs for older teenagers, a change that will affect more than 185,000 boys in the United States and Canada.
Beginning January 2018, the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is cutting ties with the Boy Scouts' Varsity and Venturing programs, youth development activities aimed at preparing young men ages 14 to 18 for adulthood.
This announcement came months after the Boy Scouts began accepting transgender boys into the program. But the church said this did not influence its decision to pull out of the programs.
"Instead, young men activities will focus on spiritual, social, physical and intellectual goals outlined by the Church," the church said in a statement. "These activities are designed to be fun and meaningful and provide opportunities for personal growth and development."
Ellen Kahn, an official at the Human Rights Campaign, criticized the decision and linked it to the transgender issue.
"While the Boy Scouts of America and society in general move forward to support and include LGBTQ people, sadly the Mormon Church continues to send a damaging message to their own youth that being LGBTQ -- or being an ally to LGBTQ people -- is not of value," Kahn said.
"It is a disservice to their own members, many of whom are moving in the direction of accepting and affirming their LGBTQ children."
The church said that in most congregations in the United States and Canada, young men aged 14 to 18 were not served well by the programs, which have been difficult to run effectively.
The church will continue to participate in the Cub Scout and Boy Scout programs, which serve about 330,000 Mormon youth ages 8 to 13 in the United States.
The Boy Scouts of America said in a statement that it appreciates its relationship with the LDS church and it is up to the church to decide which programs meet its needs.
"Although thousands of youth and leaders who participate in Venturing crews nationwide embrace and support the program, we recognize that not all programs are a perfect fit for all partners," the Boy Scouts said.
In January, the Boy Scouts reversed its more than 100-year-old policy regarding transgender boys. Shifting definitions of gender under state laws, which can "vary widely from state to state," was the main push for the change, Boy Scouts of America communications director Effie Delimarkos said in a statement.
The LDS Church statement said: "Our decision to end our participation in the Varsity and Venturing programs was made independent of this possibility and before that time."
(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Daniel Wallis and David Gregorio)