Facing diverse and ceaseless protests, the Boy Scouts of America is signalling its readiness to end the nationwide exclusion of gays as scouts or leaders and give the sponsors of local troops the freedom to decide the matter for themselves.
If approved by the Scouts' national executive board, possibly as soon as next week, the change would be another momentous milestone for America's gay-rights movement, following a surge of support for same-sex marriage and the ending of the ban on gays serving opening in military.
"The pulse of equality is strong in America, and today it beats a bit faster with news that the Boy Scouts may finally put an end to its long history of discrimination," said Chad Griffin of the Human Rights Campaign, a major gay-rights group.
Under the proposed change, which was outlined Monday by the Scouts, the different religious and civic groups that sponsor Scout units would be able to decide for themselves how to address the issue â€” either maintaining an exclusion of gays, as is now required of all units, or opening up their membership.
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. The Southern Baptists are among the largest sponsors of Scout units, along with the Roman Catholic, Mormon and United Methodist churches.
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."
The BSA, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2010, has long excluded both gays and atheists. Smith said that 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 Inc. 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 by Change.org, shipping giant UPS Inc. and drug-manufacturer Merck & Co. 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 last year 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.
Associated Press writers John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio, and Rachel Zoll in New York contributed to this report.