With its ranks deeply divided, the Boy Scouts of America is asking its local leaders from across the country to decide whether its contentious membership policy should be overhauled so that openly gay boys can participate in Scout units.
The proposal to be put before the roughly 1,400 voting members of the BSA's National Council on Thursday, at a meeting in Grapevine, Texas, would retain the Scouts' long-standing ban on gays serving in adult leadership positions.
Nonetheless, some conservatives within and outside the BSA community have denounced the proposal, saying the Scouts' traditions would be undermined by the presence of openly gay youth. There have been warnings of mass defections if the ban is even partially lifted.
From the other flank, gay-rights supporters and some Scout leaders from politically liberal areas have welcomed the proposed change as a positive first step, but are calling on the BSA to go further and lift the ban on gay adults as well.
The Scouts' national spokesman, Deron Smith, said the policy toward gays had become "the most complex and challenging issue" facing the BSA at a time when it is struggling to stem a steady drop in membership. "Ultimately we can't anticipate how people will vote but we do know that the result will not match everyone's personal preference," he said in an email.
In the past several weeks, public events have been staged by advocacy groups on different sides of the debate.
A group called Scouts for Equality has organized rallies in several cities aimed at urging local BSA councils to support an end to the ban on gay youth. Rallies opposing any easing of the ban, for youth or adults, have been organized by a group called OnMyHonor.net, which claims the pending proposal "requires open homosexuality in the Boy Scouts." Both groups plan to have their leaders and supporters on hand in Grapevine as the vote takes place.
Of the more than 100,000 Scouting units in the United States, 70 percent are chartered by religious institutions. While these sponsors include liberal churches opposed to any ban on gays, some of the largest sponsors are relatively conservative denominations that have supported the broad ban -- notably the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Southern Baptist churches.
Leaders of some smaller conservative denominations -- including the Assemblies of God and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod -- have signed a statement opposing the proposal to accept gay youth.
Some larger sponsors have either endorsed the proposal, or -- in the case of the United Methodist Church, the second-largest sponsor, and Catholic Church, No. 3 -- declined to specify a position. The National Catholic Committee on Scouting issued a statement describing the membership debate as "difficult and sensitive" but stopping short of any explicit recommendation for how Catholic delegates to the BSA meeting should vote.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced in April that it supports the new proposal, saying the BSA made a good-faith effort to address a complex issue. The Mormons are the No. 1 Scouts sponsor, serving about 430,000 of the 2.6 million youths.
Several regional councils have declared their position on the membership proposal, including The Greater New York Councils. The council, which serves about 43,000 Scouts in New York City, supports the proposal to accept gay youths and also supports the acceptance of gays as adult leaders.
If the youth proposal is approved, the new policy would take effect on Jan. 1, 2014. A task force has been created to oversee its implementation.