The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is proposing to lift its ban on gay youths, but not gay adults, the organization announced Friday, responding to pressure from gay rights advocates to drop restrictions in its membership policies.
The proposal, which will be put to a vote at its National Council meeting in May, is a change of course from the plan it floated earlier this year, which would have given local units the option to either include or exclude gay members. The new policy states that "no youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone," Deron Smith, the organization's spokesman, told Reuters.
The new position is already drawing criticism from groups on both sides of the issue. Gay rights advocates say the BSA should lift the ban for both youths and adults, while conservative groups and churches support keeping the ban in place.
"By refusing to consider an end to its ban on gay and lesbian parents, the Boy Scouts have missed an opportunity to exercise leadership and usher the organization back to relevancy," Rich Ferraro, a spokesman for GLAAD, which promotes lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, told Reuters.
GLAAD, together with Scouts for Equality, supported campaigns that amassed 1.6 million signatures for an online petition on Change.org that calls for an end to banning gays from the Boy Scouts.
"We are seeing a rapid and historic shift toward equality for all," Mr. Jacobs said in a statement. "The Boy Scouts are now beginning to catch up with this reality."
For John Stemberger, an Eagle Scout and founder of OnMyHonor.net, a coalition of parents and Scouts who support the ban on gays, the proposal raises many concerns.
“This cleverly-worded resolution tries to dodge criticism from gay activists but still creates a myriad of problems for how to manage and ensure the safety and security of the boys in the program,” Mr. Stemberger said in a statement. “The current membership policy of Scouting, which is backed by more than 100 years of tradition, allows anyone to participate irrespective of sexual orientation, but only disallows the open and aggressive promotion of homosexuality and political agendas."
Leaders of the Mormon Church, which does not support same-sex relationships, will review the new proposal and its implications before taking a position on it, said Michael Purdy, spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, on Friday. There are more Mormon Boy Scouts nationally than any other religious denomination, the Associated Press reported, and 99 percent of the troops in the Great Salt Lake Council are sponsored by the Mormon Church.
In February, the BSA sent surveys to about 1 million members, receiving approximately 200,000 responses. Dozens of churches and religious organizations were included in the BSA survey because they sponsor a majority of Scout units. Many of the survey responses from religious institutions were concerned about allowing gay adult leaders but not about gay youth participants.
The Scouts executive committee drafted the proposal after it "embarked on the most comprehensive listening exercise in its history to consider the impact of potential changes to its membership standards policy on the organization," said a statement released Friday.
Overall, 61 percent of survey respondents supported the current policy of excluding gays, and 34 percent – including a majority of younger parents and teens – opposed the current policy.
"Scouting’s review confirmed that this issue remains among the most complex and challenging issues facing the BSA and society today," the statement said. "Even with the wide range of input, it is extremely difficult to accurately quantify the potential impact of maintaining or changing the current policy. While perspectives and opinions vary significantly, parents, adults in the Scouting community, and teens alike tend to agree that youth should not be denied the benefits of Scouting."
If the BSA allowed gay adults to be leaders, it could lose 100,000 to 350,000 members, the Associated Press said, citing BSA estimates. Thus, the BSA opted to include gay youths, but still exclude gay adults.
"The proposed resolution also reinforces that Scouting is a youth program, and any sexual conduct, whether heterosexual or homosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting," the statement said.
• Material from the Associated Press contributed to this report.