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," Smith said in an email.
In January, the BSA floated a plan to give sponsors of local Scout units the option of admitting gays as both youth members and adult leaders or continuing to exclude them. However, it changed course, in part because of surveys sent out starting in February to members of the Scouting community.
Of the more than 200,000 leaders, parents and youth members who responded, 61 percent supported the current policy of excluding gays, while 34 percent opposed it.
Those findings contrasted with a Washington Post-ABC News national poll earlier this month. It said 63 percent of respondents favored letting openly gay youth be Scouts, and 56 percent favored lifting the ban on gay adults.
Over the past several weeks, numerous 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.
Among those heading to Grapevine to lobby for an easing of the ban are Tracie Felker and her 16-year-old son, Pascal Tessier, who, though openly gay, is on track to become an Eagle Scout as a member of Boy Scout Troop 52 in Chevy Chase, Md.
"We are absolutely dedicated to restoring integrity to Boy Scouting and reinvigorating the program," Felker said. "That can only be done by removing the stain of discrimination."
Passions also run deep on the other side, as evidenced by a live online event titled "Stand With Scouts Sunday" presented May 5 by the conservative Family Research Council. The council opposes lifting the ban on gay youth, saying such a change "will dramatically alter the culture and moral landscape of America."
Among the participants was Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who lauded the Scouts' tradition of character-building.
"For pop culture to come in and try to tear that up because this happens to be the flavor of the month ... that is just not appropriate," Perry said. "Frankly I hope the American people stand up and say, 'Not on my watch.'"
Also appearing on the webcast was Jeremy Miller, a Scout leader from Ohio who said the proposed change "will open the door to boy-on-boy sexual contact, bullying and older Scouts being predators on younger scouts."
The BSA's national leadership has rejected such warnings as ill-founded. "The BSA makes no connection between the sexual abuse or victimization of a child and homosexuality," a new background document says. "The BSA takes strong exception to this assertion."
Of the more than 100,000 Scouting units in the U.S., 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.
Knowing these churches oppose scouting roles for gay adults, the BSA leadership hopes they will be willing to back the easing of the ban on gay youth. As part of this effort, the BSA is emphasizing that sexual conduct by any Scout — straight or gay — would be considered unacceptable.
"We are unaware of any major religious chartered organization that believes a youth member simply stating he or she is attracted to the same sex, but not engaging in sexual activity, should make him or her unwelcome in their congregation," the Scouts say in their new background document.
Southern Baptist leaders were outspoken earlier this year in opposing the tentative plan to let Scout units decide for themselves if they wanted to accept gays as adult leaders.
Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee, said the new proposal "is more acceptable to those who hold a biblical form of morality," but he nonetheless favors its defeat.
"A No vote keeps the current policy in place, an outcome we would overwhelmingly support," Page told Baptist Press, the SBC's official news agency.
Baptist Press reported that the Roswell Street Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., was considering ending a nearly 75-year sponsorship of a Boy Scout troop if the policy change prevails. The church's senior pastor, Ernest Easley, echoed warnings from other Southern Baptist leaders that any BSA accommodation of gays might prompt defections and trigger an expansion of the SBC's own youth group for boys, the Royal Ambassadors. According to BSA figures, Baptist churches sponsor Scout units with about 108,000 youth members.
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 and Catholic Church — 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 sponsor more Scout units than any other organization, serving about 430,000 of the 2.6 million youth in Scouting.
The United Methodists are the second-largest sponsor, serving about 363,000 youth members; the Catholic Church is No. 3, with a youth membership of about 273,000.
Several regional Scout councils already have declared their position on the membership proposal.
In Tennessee, the Nashville-based Middle Tennessee Council and Jackson-based West Tennessee Area Council said they oppose the proposed change and support the current broad ban on gay youth and adults.
"We are continuing to uphold the standards, beliefs and traditions Scouting has held for over 100 years," said Lee Beaman, board president of the Middle Tennessee Council, which says it serves 35,000 youth and adults.
The day after that announcement, Bill Moser, a longtime Scout leader in Clarksville, Tenn., announced his resignation, saying he couldn't support a policy that would force openly gay youth out of Scouting when they turned 18.
The Greater New York Councils, which serve about 43,000 Scouts in New York City, is supporting the proposal to accept gay youths, calling it "a positive step forward." It is among the councils urging the Scouts to also accept gays as adult leaders.
The Los Angeles Area Council said it follows a nondiscrimination policy that extends to sexual orientation and it proposed that the BSA adopt a similar policy nationwide, opening its ranks to openly gay adults as well as youth.
However, the BSA leadership says no such alternative proposals will be put to a vote at the Grapevine meeting — only the single proposal to lift the ban on gay youth.
If the proposal is approved, the new policy would take effect on Jan. 1, 2014. A task force already has been created to oversee its implementation.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.