AP National Writer
With its ranks deeply divided, the Boy Scouts of America is asking its local leaders from across the country to decide whether its contentious membership policy should be overhauled so that openly gay boys can participate in Scout units.
The proposal to be put before the roughly 1,400 voting members of the BSA's National Council on Thursday, at a meeting in Grapevine, Texas, would retain the Scouts' long-standing ban on gays serving in adult leadership positions.
Nonetheless, some conservatives within and outside the BSA community have denounced the proposal, saying the Scouts' traditions would be undermined by the presence of openly gay youth. There have been warnings of mass defections if the ban is even partially lifted.
From the other flank, gay-rights supporters and some Scout leaders from politically liberal areas have welcomed the proposed change as a positive first step, but are calling on the BSA to go further and lift the ban on gay adults as well.
The Scouts' national spokesman, Deron Smith, said the policy toward gays had become "the most complex and challenging issue" facing the BSA at a time when it is struggling to stem a steady drop in membership.
"Ultimately we can't anticipate how people will vote but we do know that the result will not match everyone's personal preference," Smith said in an email.
In January, the BSA floated a plan to give sponsors of local Scout units the option of admitting gays as both youth members and adult leaders or continuing to exclude them. However, it changed course, in part because of surveys sent out starting in February to members of the Scouting community.
Of the more than 200,000 leaders, parents and youth members who responded, 61 percent supported the current policy of excluding gays, while 34 percent opposed it.
Those findings contrasted with a Washington Post-ABC News national poll earlier this month. It said 63 percent of respondents favored letting openly gay youth be Scouts, and 56 percent favored lifting the ban on gay adults.
Over the past several weeks, numerous public events have been staged by advocacy groups on different sides of the debate.
A group called Scouts for Equality has organized rallies in several cities aimed at urging local BSA councils to support an end to the ban on gay youth. Rallies opposing any easing of the ban, for youth or adults, have been organized by a group called OnMyHonor.net, which claims the pending proposal "requires open homosexuality in the Boy Scouts."
Both groups plan to have their leaders and supporters on hand in Grapevine as the vote takes place.
Among those heading to Grapevine to lobby for an easing of the ban are Tracie Felker and her 16-year-old son, Pascal Tessier, who, though openly gay, is on track to become an Eagle Scout as a member of Boy Scout Troop 52 in Chevy Chase, Md.
"We are absolutely dedicated to restoring integrity to Boy Scouting and reinvigorating the program," Felker said. "That can only be done by removing the stain of discrimination."
Passions also run deep on the other side, as evidenced by a live online event titled "Stand With Scouts Sunday" presented May 5 by the conservative Family Research Council. The council opposes lifting the ban on gay youth, saying such a change "will dramatically alter the culture and moral landscape of America."
Among the participants was Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who lauded the Scouts' tradition of character-building.
"For pop culture to come in and try to tear that up because this happens to be the flavor of the month ... that is just not appropriate," Perry said. "Frankly I hope the American people stand up and say, 'Not on my watch.'"
Also appearing on the webcast was Jeremy Miller, a Scout leader from Ohio who said the proposed change "will open the door to boy-on-boy sexual contact, bullying and older Scouts being predators on younger scouts."
The BSA's national leadership has rejected such warnings as ill-founded. "The BSA makes no connection between the sexual abuse or victimization of a child and homosexuality," a new background document says. "The BSA takes strong exception to this assertion."
Of the more than 100,000 Scouting units in the U.S., 70 percent are chartered by religious institutions. While these sponsors include liberal churches opposed to any ban on gays, some of the largest sponsors are relatively conservative denominations that have supported the broad ban -- notably the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Southern Baptist churches.