NEW YORK (AP) - The Boy Scouts of America may soon give sponsors of troops the authority to decide whether to accept gays as scouts and leaders - a potentially dramatic retreat from an exclusionary nationwide policy that has provoked relentless protests.
Under the change now being discussed, the different religious and civic groups that sponsor Scout units would be able to decide for themselves how to address the issue - either maintaining an exclusion of gays, as is now required of all units, or opening up their membership.
Several local Scout-affiliated church leaders did not return calls seeking comment or declined to comment when contacted by The Intelligencer.
Boy Scout Troop 358 of Germantown, Pa., marches during the 57th Presidential Inaugural Parade on Jan. 21 in Washington.
Gay-rights activists were elated at the prospect of change, sensing another milestone to go along with recent advances for same-sex marriage and the end of the ban on gays serving in the military.
However, Southern Baptist leaders - who consider homosexuality a sin - were furious about the possible change and said its approval might encourage Southern Baptist churches to support other boys' organizations instead of the BSA.
Monday's announcement of the possible change comes after years of protests over the no-gays policy - including petition campaigns that have prompted some corporations to suspend donations to the Boy Scouts.
Under the proposed change, said BSA spokesman Deron Smith, "the Boy Scouts would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members, or parents."
Smith said the change could be announced as early as next week, after BSA's national board concludes a regularly scheduled meeting on Feb. 6. The meeting will be closed to the public.
The BSA, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2010, has long excluded both gays and atheists. Smith said a change in the policy toward atheists was not being considered, and that the BSA continued to view "Duty to God" as one of its basic principles.
Protests over the no-gays policy gained momentum in 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the BSA's right to exclude gays. Scout units lost sponsorships by public schools and other entities that adhered to nondiscrimination policies, and several local Scout councils made public their displeasure with the policy.
More recently, pressure surfaced on the Scouts' own national executive board. Two high-powered members - Ernst & Young CEO James Turley and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson - indicated they would try to work from within to change the membership policy, which stood in contrast to their own companies' non-discrimination policies.
Amid petition campaigns, shipping giant UPS Inc. and drug-manufacturer Merck announced that they were halting donations from their charitable foundations to the Boy Scouts as long as the no-gays policy was in force.
Also, local Scout officials drew widespread criticism in recent months for ousting Jennifer Tyrrell, a lesbian mom, as a den leader of her son's Cub Scout pack in Ohio and for refusing to approve an Eagle Scout application by Ryan Andresen, a California teen who came out as gay last fall.
Tyrrell said she's thrilled for parents and their children who've been excluded from scouting and "for those who are in Scouts and hiding who they are."
"For me it's not just about the Boy Scouts of America, it's about equality," she said. "This is a step toward equality in all aspects."