The Boy Scouts of America may soon give sponsors of troops the authority to decide whether to accept gays as Scouts and leaders -- a potentially dramatic retreat from an exclusionary nationwide policy that has provoked relentless protests.
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, as is now required of all units, or opening up their membership.
Gay-rights activists were elated at the prospect of change, sensing another milestone to go along with recent advances for same-sex marriage and the end of the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
"This is a national policy. The local councils have all agreed to support the decision that's made by the volunteer national executive board," said Matt Thornton, area director and interim scout executive for the Northwest Suburban Council. "Our united focus is on working together to try and continue to deliver programs for the kids. Whatever their decision is, we're going to support it."
The push for the policy on gays to be reconsidered came from the organization's membership and its partners, said Mike Hale, executive with the Boy Scouts' Northeast Illinois Council, which is based in Highland Park and covers Lake County and northern Cook County. He called it a grass-roots movement, and said the proposal will be discussed next week at a national meeting.
"It's still an internal discussion at this point," said Hale, who added he'll support Boy Scout policy "whatever it is."
Bill Sohn, scoutmaster of South Elgin Troop 21, said he has never really thought about the possibility of a new policy at the local level. But Sohn said the Three Fires Council, which oversees all the individual Fox Valley troops, would be the ones to name a direction locally.
"We wouldn't do anything without their approval," Sohn said.
Mike Ellman, assistant scoutmaster for Boy Scout Troop 100 in Naperville, welcomed the Scouts' announcement, saying it's "ridiculous" to turn away competent leaders and aspiring Scouts because of their sexual orientation.
"As long as nobody makes it an issue, it won't be an issue," he said.
Ellman said the Boy Scouts of America are smart to reconsider their position while gay marriage is still a hot topic nationally.
"They're finally recognizing the obvious," he said. "Even being a private organization -- once gay marriage is approved at the state level all over the country and at the federal level -- they're really going to look like fools if they stick to it."
Ellman stressed that he was expressing only his personal views. He said the Naperville troop and church would take up the issue if and when the proposal moves forward.
Wesley United Methodist Church charters Troop 100, which has about 50 Scouts and roughly a dozen adult leaders. Ellman, who retired as scoutmaster last spring after nine years, described the church as "welcoming and inclusive" and said he expects it would also support gays in scouting.
Adult leaders already undergo criminal background checks, he said. Occasionally, parents want to know the organization's policy on gay leaders, though Ellman said he personally doesn't think sexual orientation is relevant as long as candidates meet all other requirements.
"I know a number of gay people outside of Scouts. Some of them I'd like to have as leaders and some of them, I wouldn't," he said. "It's like anybody else."
In Elgin Boy Scout Troop 2, Scoutmaster Doug Horton said the troop committee would probably meet to discuss any changes and make the final decision. Neither scoutmaster had heard of the policy change before Monday.
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 Boy Scouts.
Monday's announcement of the possible change comes after years of protests over the no-gays policy -- including petition campaigns that have prompted some corporations to suspend donations to the Boy Scouts.
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."
Smith said the change could be announced as early as next week, after BSA's national board concludes a regularly scheduled meeting Feb. 6. The meeting will be closed to the public.
The BSA, 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 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 CEO Randall Stephenson -- indicated they would try to work from within to change the membership policy, which stood in contrast to their own companies' nondiscrimination policies.
Amid petition campaigns, shipping giant UPS Inc. and drug-manufacturer Merck announced they were halting donations from their charitable foundations to the Boy Scouts as long as the no-gays policy was in force.
Also, 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.
Tyrrell said she's 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 said. "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 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.
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 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."
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-Christians principles upon which they were founded and under which they have served youth well."
Were the change adopted, said Deron Smith, "there would no longer be any national policy regarding sexual orientation, and the chartered organizations that oversee and deliver Scouting would accept membership and select leaders consistent with each organization's mission, principles or religious beliefs.
"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 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 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 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. There were 910,668 Boy Scouts last year, a tiny increase from 2011, while the ranks of Venturers -- a program for youths 14 and older -- declined by 5.5 percent.
In addition to flak over the no-gays policy, the Scouts have been buffeted 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 Scouts are now under a California court order, affirmed this month by the state Supreme Court, to turn over sex-abuse files from 1991 through 2011 to the lawyers for a former Scout who claims a leader molested him in 2007, when he was 13. It's not clear how soon the files might become public.
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.
• Daily Herald reporters Josh Stockinger, Tara Garcia Mathewson, Madhu Krishnamurthy and Russ Lissau contributed to this report.