NEW YORK — The Boy Scouts of America's proposed move away from its no-gays membership policy has outraged some longtime admirers, gratified many critics and raised intriguing questions about the iconic organization's future.
Will the Scouts now be split between troops with gay-friendly policies and those that keep the ban? What will a National Jamboree be like if it brings together these disparate groups with conflicting ideologies?
A top official of the Southern Baptist Convention, whose conservative churches sponsor hundreds of Scout units that embrace the ban, was among those alarmed that the BSA is proposing to allow sponsoring organizations to decide for themselves whether to admit gays as scouts and adult leaders.
"We understand that we are now a minority, that it is not popular to have biblical values, not popular to take stands that seem intolerant," said Frank Page, president of the SBC's executive committee. "This is going to lead to a disintegration of faith-based values."
Page had been scheduled to speak in July at the Scouts' National Jamboree in West Virginia, and he's now apprehensive there could be conflict as troops with differing policies converge. Asked if he might decide not to speak, Page said he would pray about it.
Of the more than 110,000 scouting units across the U.S., nearly 70 percent are chartered by religious organizations. Some were pleased by the proposed change, others were troubled.
Triggering the angst was the Boy Scouts' announcement Monday that it was considering replacing its long-standing ban on gays with a policy that would let troop sponsors make their own decisions. The change is expected to be discussed next week at a meeting of the BSA's national executive board.
The ban on gays, which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld as constitutional in 2000, has provoked a multitude of protest campaigns over the years. Numerous Scout councils and Scout leaders have expressed disagreement with the policy, and some corporate donors last year said they were suspending gifts to the BSA until the policy changed.
One of these companies, New Jersey-based drug-maker Merck & Co., said Tuesday it was pleased the BSA was reconsidering its position, but declined further comment.
Another form of protest involved Eagle Scouts who returned their medals and badges to Boy Scout headquarters. Among them was Nate May, a 25-year-old musician from Huntington, W.Va., who depicted the Scouts' new proposal as "a step in the right direction."
Later this year, more than 40,000 Scouts from across the country are expected to participate in the annual National Jamboree at a 10,600-acre site being built in southern West Virginia.
If the new policy is in place by then, May said, there could be some teasing and hurt feelings as gays make their public debut at the Jamboree. But overall, he predicted a positive experience.
"It would potentially open up some really interesting dialogues," May said. "I think it will probably show troops that continue to have the ban that a troop can exist in harmony, even with gays in it."
In Philadelphia, scoutmaster Ann Perrone said she's spent the past 13 years fighting the ban by writing letters, speaking out and wearing gay-rights rainbow symbols.
"I've done everything I can think of to make a local difference," Perrone said. "I'm really thrilled."
Perrone, an African-American, said she benefited from white support for the civil rights movement and now, as a straight woman, sees a chance to help expand the rights of gays and lesbians.
She said the proposed change could prompt some churches to cut ties with Scouting, but suggested other congregations will step up to fill the gaps.
"This is something that will probably flare up and, if handled properly, will be allowed to die down," Perrone said.
The no-gays policy has fueled a protracted legal fight in Philadelphia. The Scouts' Cradle of Liberty Council has used a city-owned building rent-free for decades, and officials have been trying to evict them because the ban violates a local anti-discrimination law. A federal jury ruled in favor of the Scouts, but the city has appealed.
In North Carolina, news of the possible policy change was welcomed — cautiously — by Matt Comer of Charlotte, who said he was forced out of his Boy Scout troop at the age of 14 after troop leaders confronted him over being gay.
"It was very intimidating," said Comer, now 26. "The scoutmaster said, 'If you choose to live that lifestyle, you choose not to be a Boy Scout.'"
"I lost a lot of good friends when I had to leave," Comer said. "I really did enjoy Scouts. I wanted to get my Eagle Scout and go on to be a Scout leader."
Now, he has mixed views about the proposed change, and anticipates there could be problems when troops with different stances mingle at jamborees and summer camps.
He also questioned whether adult leaders would have the necessary training and insight to deal well with gay scouts who come out if the ban is eased.
In Durham, N.C., the proposed change prompted some careful moral calculations by the Rev. Allen Jones, associate minister of Antioch Baptist Church and scoutmaster of the church-sponsored Troop 481.
"Personally, I believe homosexuality is a sin and you can go to hell for it," Jones said. "But the Gospel also speaks to the inclusion and acceptance of people with a cross to bear. If someone openly gay comes in and wants to participate, then that's between them and God. We're not going to discriminate."
Two of the biggest sponsors are the Mormons' Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose units serve roughly 420,000 scouts, and the Roman Catholic Church, which serves about 280,000 Scouts. Mormon and Catholic leaders, who have signaled support for the no-gays policy in the past, declined any official response to Monday's announcement of the possible change.
"We've had 100 years of a very conservative approach to scouting," said Kay Godfrey, a spokesman for Boy Scouts in the Great Salt Lake Council. "A major shift along these lines could change the face of scouting, but we'll have to just wait and see."
Scott Barr, a scoutmaster in McKinney, Texas, said his Mormon-chartered troop would likely wait for guidance from the national Mormon church.
"I don't know what the position would be," said Barr, who's been involved in scouting for 25 years. "I wouldn't even dare to speculate."
The United Methodist Church, the second largest sponsor of Scout units after the Mormons, expressed support for the policy change — saying it was in line with church policy opposing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
News of the proposed change came just ahead of "Scout Sunday" next weekend — an annual event in which churches across the nation have special worship services and luncheons to honor scouts.
Frank Page, the Southern Baptist leader, said that proposing the policy change so close to Scout Sunday is causing a lot of consternation.
"Churches have not had time to think and pray and consider this," he said.
Page said all Southern Baptist churches are independent and can set their own policies, but he expects the SBC executive committee to discuss the issue and possibly offer a resolution when it meets in Nashville in mid-February.
Some conservative activists sought to organize e-mail and phone call campaigns aimed at pressuring the Boy Scouts to maintain the mandatory no-gays policies.
Among them was John Stemberger, a former scout and now president of the conservative Florida Family Policy Council.
"If the BSA departs from its policies on allowing openly homosexual scoutmasters and boys in the program it could destroy the legitimacy and the security of this iconic institution," Stemberger wrote to his supporters. "I pray that the BSA does not open a can of worms that would cause a mass exodus from a program that America needs now more than ever."
More optimistic was another former scout, Jay Mechling, who is professor emeritus of American Studies at the University of California, Davis, and author of "On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth."
"If the BSA makes this move, which I dearly hope they will, the world will not end," Mechling said in an e-mail. "People will hardly notice."