The Boy Scout of America is considering ending its longstanding national membership restrictions based on sexual orientation.
Under the change now being discussed, 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 gays or opening up their membership.
Monday's announcement of the possible change comes after years of protests over the policy including petition campaigns that have prompted some corporations to suspend donations to the Boy Scouts.
Deron Smith, a spokesperson for the Boy Scouts of America, said in a statement that the BSA is discussing potentially removing the national organization's restriction, allowing membership and the selection of scout leaders to be determined by local chartered organizations "consistent with each organization's mission, principles, or religious beliefs.
"The policy change under discussion would allow the religious, civic, or educational organizations that oversee and deliver scouting to determine how to address this issue," Smith said.
The Boys Scouts, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2010, has long excluded both gays 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.
Scouting officials will take up the matter at next week's scheduled national Board meeting.
Smith said that the BSA would not dictate a position to units, members, or parents, "[or] require any chartered organization to act in ways inconsistent" with that organization's principles or religious beliefs.
Smith said that the change, if implemented, would allow scouts and their parents to choose a local chapter that best suits their needs.
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, amid petition campaigns, shipping giant UPS Inc. and drug-manufacturer Merck 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 in recent months 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.
"An end to this ban will restore dignity to countless families across the country, my own included, who simply wanted to take part in all scouting has to offer," Tyrrell said. "My family loved participating in scouting, and I look forward to the day when we might once again be able to take part."
Many of the protest campaigns, including one seeking Tyrrell's reinstatement, had been waged with help from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
"The Boy Scouts of America have heard from scouts, corporations and millions of Americans that discriminating against gay scouts and scout leaders is wrong," said Herndon Graddick, GLAAD's president. "Scouting is a valuable institution, and this change will only strengthen its core principles of fairness and respect."
The Scouts had reaffirmed the no-gays policy as recently as last year, and appeared to have strong backing from conservative religious denominations notably the Mormons, Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists which sponsor large numbers of Scout units. Under the proposed change, they could continue excluding gays.