NEW YORK — Facing diverse and ceaseless protests, the Boy Scouts of America is signaling its readiness to end the nationwide exclusion of gays as scouts or leaders and give the sponsors of local troops the freedom to decide the matter for themselves.
If approved by the Scouts' national executive board, possibly as soon as next week, the change would be another momentous milestone for America's gay-rights movement, following a surge of support for same-sex marriage and the ending of the ban on gays serving opening in military.
"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 the Human Rights Campaign, a major gay-rights group.
Under the proposed change, which was outlined Monday by the Scouts, 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, as is now required of all units, or opening up their membership.
Southern Baptist leaders — who consider homosexuality a sin — were furious about the possible change and said its approval might encourage Southern Baptist churches to support other boys' organizations 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.
Under the proposed change, said BSA spokesman Deron Smith, "the Boy Scouts would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members, or parents."
The Irving, Texas-based BSA, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2010, has long excluded both gays and atheists. Smith said that 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 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, pressure surfaced on the Scouts' own national executive board. Two high-powered members — Ernst & Young CEO James Turley and AT&T Inc. CEO Randall Stephenson — indicated they would try to work from within to change the membership policy, which stood in contrast to their own companies' non-discrimination policies.
Amid petition campaigns by Change.org, shipping giant UPS Inc. and drug-manufacturer Merck & Co. 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 last year 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.
Tyrrell said she was thrilled for parents and their children who've been excluded from scouting 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 told The Associated Press. "This is a step toward equality in all aspects."
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 the conservative religious denominations that sponsor large numbers of Scout units. Under the proposed change, they could continue excluding gays.
Before Monday's announcement, the BSA conferred with some leaders of these religious groups, including the Rev. Frank Page, who leads the Southern Baptist Executive Committee.
According to Roger S. Oldham, a spokesman for the executive committee, Page then wrote to the Scouts "expressing his tremendous dismay at the decision."
"They had been working for months on this proposal and just days before they informed us," Oldham said in a telephone interview. "We would anticipate that there would be a very significant backlash to this as churches re-evaluate whether scouting comports with their values."
If the Scouts proceed with the change, Oldham said, SBC leaders were likely to issue a statement "expressing disappointed and encouraging our churches to support alternative boys organizations."
Neither the Catholic Church nor the Mormons' Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued official statements as to how they would respond.
Said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, "The bishops hope the Boy Scouts will continue to work under the Judeo-Christian principles upon which they were founded and under which they have served youth well."
Were the change adopted, said BSA spokesman Smith, "there would no longer be any national policy regarding sexual orientation."
"BSA members and parents would be able to choose a local unit that best meets the needs of their families," he said. "Under this proposed policy, the BSA would not require any chartered organization to act in ways inconsistent with that organization's mission, principles, or religious beliefs."
The announcement came shortly after new data showed that membership in the Cub Scouts — the BSA's biggest division — dropped sharply last year and was down nearly 30 percent over the past 14 years.
According to figures provided by the organization, Cub Scout ranks dwindled by 3.4 percent, from 1,583,166 in 2011 to 1,528,673 in 2012. That's down from 2.17 million in 1998.
The BSA's overall "traditional youth membership" — Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Venturers — totaled 2,658,794 in 2012, compared to more than 4 million in peak years of the past.
The Boy Scouts attribute the decline largely to broad social changes, including the allure of video games and the proliferation of youth sports leagues and other options for after-school activities.
However, critics of the Scouts suggest that its recruitment efforts have been hampered by high-profile controversies — notably the court-ordered release of files dealing with sex abuse allegations and persistent protests over the no-gays policy.
The Scouts have been buffeted in recent years by multiple court cases related to past allegations of sexual abuse by Scout leaders, including those chronicled in long-confidential records that are widely known as the "perversion files."
Through various cases, the Scouts have been forced to reveal files dating from the 1960s to 1991. They detailed numerous cases where abuse claims were made and Boy Scout officials never alerted authorities and sometimes actively sought to protect the accused.
The BSA has apologized for past lapses and cover-ups and has stressed the steps taken to improve youth protection policy. Since 2010, for example, it has mandated that any suspected abuse be reported to police.
Associated Press writers John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio, and Rachel Zoll in New York contributed to this report.