The organisation which runs scouting in America is set to end the nationwide exclusion of gays as scouts or leaders and give local troops the freedom to decide the matter for themselves.
If approved by the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) national executive board, possibly as soon as next week, the change would be another momentous milestone for the US gay rights movement, following a surge of support for same-sex marriage and the ending of the ban on gay people serving openly in the military.
Under the proposals, 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 gay people as members or leaders, as is now required of all units, or opening up their membership.
BSA spokesman Deron Smith said it “would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members, or parents”.
“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 gay pressure group the Human Rights Campaign.
Southern Baptist leaders – who consider homosexuality a sin – are furious about the possible change and said approval might encourage their churches to support other boys’ organisations 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.
The BSA, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2010 and has about 2.6 million youth members, has long excluded both gay people 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 gained momentum in 2000, when the US Supreme Court upheld the BSA’s right to exclude gays. Scout units lost sponsorship from public schools and other entities that adhered to non-discrimination 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 members – Ernst & Young chief executive James Turley and AT&T chief Randall Stephenson – indicated they would try to work from within to change the membership policy, which stood in contrast to their own firms’ non-discrimination policies.
Amid petitions organised by pressure group Change.org, shipping giant UPS and drug maker Merck said they would halt donations from their charitable foundations to the Scouts while the no-gays policy was in force.
Local Scout officials drew widespread criticism last year for removing Jennifer Tyrrell, a lesbian mother, as a den leader of her son’s Cub Scout pack in Ohio, and for refusing an Eagle Scout application by Ryan Andresen, a California teen who came out as gay.
Ms Tyrrell said yesterday she was thrilled for those who have been excluded 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.”
Herndon Graddick, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, said: “Scouting is a valuable institution, and this change will only strengthen its core principles of fairness and respect.”