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Change: The Boy Scouts of America announced it is considering a dramatic retreat from its controversial policy of excluding gays as leaders and youth members
The Boy Scouts of America is discussing ending a longstanding ban on gay members and allowing local organizations to decide their own policy, a spokesman revealed today.
Lifting the ban would mark a dramatic reversal for the 103-year-old organization, which only last summer reaffirmed its policy amid heavy criticism from gay rights groups and some parents of scouts
Monday’s announcement comes after years of protests over the policy, including petition campaigns that have prompted come corporations to suspend donations to the Boy Scouts.
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 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, 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.
'The BSA is discussing potentially removing the national membership restriction regarding sexual orientation,' spokesman Deron Smith said in an email to Reuters.
Unfair? Jennifer Tyrrell, pictured last June, hugs her son Cruz Burns, 7; she was ousted this summer after they discovered she was a lesbian
'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,' the spokesman said.
The organization, which had more than 2.6 million youth members and more than 1 million adult members at the end of 2012, 'would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members, or parents,' Smith said.
The Boy Scouts won a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing the organization to ban gays in 2000, but has come under increasing public pressure in recent years from activists. They include Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout with two lesbian mothers, and Jennifer Tyrrell, a lesbian mother from Ohio who was ousted as a Scout den leader and treasurer.
'This is absolutely a step in the right direction,' said Wahls, who is founder of Scouts for Equality, a group that includes 3,151 other Eagle scouts.
Wahls said he would turn to persuading local councils to enact nondiscrimination policies if the change is approved.
Tyrrell said she looked forward to a day when she and her family might participate in scouting again.
'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 in a statement.
Outrage: Jennifer Tyrrell, right, was ousted as a den mother because she is a lesbian
GLAAD, an anti-discrimination advocacy group, began to press for a reversal of the Boy Scouts policy after Tyrrell was removed from her son's den and more than 1 million people have signed petitions on Change.org seeking an end to the policy.
More than 462,000 people signed a petition on Change.org calling for the Boy Scouts to grant an Eagle Scout application for Ryan Andresen, a California resident who is openly gay.
Andresen's scoutmaster refused to sign the application because of his sexual orientation. A review board for the California chapter recommended he receive the rank, but its recommendation was never forwarded to national headquarters.
The organization has faced pressure from board members - Ernst & Young chairman and chief executive Jim Turley and AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson have spoken out against the ban - and some corporations withdrew support over the policy
Patrick Boyle, whose 1994 book 'Scout's Honor' was among the first to examine sexual abuse in the Boy Scouts of America, said on Monday the 'striking reversal in policy' was likely the result of growing pressure from corporations.
The Boy Scouts of America signage is seen on the Cushman Watt Scout Center, headquarters of the organization for the Los Angeles Area Council, in Los Angeles
This is a safe way out of this mess for the national organization, which takes the fight back to the local level, and says to a local leader, 'you make the choice that's right for you',' Boyle said. 'It's essentially the Boy Scouts' version of states' rights.'
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 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.
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