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Boy Scouts close to ending ban on gay members, leaders

NBC's Pete Williams reports on the major policy shift being considered by the Boy Scouts of America.

The Boy Scouts of America, one of the nation’s largest private youth organizations, is actively considering an end to its decades-long policy of banning gay scouts or scout leaders, according to scouting officials and outsiders familiar with internal discussions.

If adopted by the organization’s board of directors, it would represent a profound change on an issue that has been highly controversial -- one that even went to the US Supreme Court. The new policy, now under discussion, would eliminate the ban from the national organization’s rules, leaving local sponsoring organizations free to decide for themselves whether to admit gay scouts.

“The chartered organizations that oversee and deliver scouting would accept membership and select leaders consistent with their organization’s mission, principles or religious beliefs,” according to Deron Smith, a spokesman for the Boy Scouts’ national organization.

Individual sponsors and parents “would be able to choose a local unit which best meets the needs of their families,” Smith said.

The discussion of a potential change in policy is nearing its final stages, according to outside scouting supporters. If approved, the change could be announced as early as next week, after the BSA's national board holds a regularly scheduled meeting.

Only seven months ago, the Boy Scouts affirmed a policy of banning gay members, after a nearly two-year examination of the issue by a committee of volunteers convened by national leaders of the Boy Scouts of America, known as the BSA.

In a statement last July affirming the ban, its national executive board called it “the best policy for the organization.”

But since then, a scouting official said, local chapters have been urging a reconsideration. "We're a grassroots organization. This is a response to what's happening at the local level," the official said.

Two corporate CEOs on BSA’s national board, Randall Stephenson of AT&T and James Turley of Ernst & Young, have also said they would work to end the ban. Stephenson is next in line to be the BSA’s national chairman. During the 2012 presidential campaign, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney said the BSA should admit gay scouts and scout leaders.

Jennifer Tyrrell, who was ousted as a den mother for her son's Cub Scout troop because of her sexual orientation, is fighting back. Tyrrell talks to msnbc's Thomas Roberts about her petition to change the Boy Scouts of America's long-standing policy on banning gays and lesbians.

About 50 local United Way groups and several corporations and charities have concluded that the ban violates their non-discrimination requirements and have ceased providing financial aid to the Boy Scouts. An official of The Human Rights Campaign, an advocate for gay rights, said HRC planned to downgrade its non-discrimination ratings for corporations that continue to give the BSA financial support.

“It’s an extremely complex issue,” said one Boy Scouts of America official, who explained that other organizations have threatened to withdraw their financial support if the BSA drops the ban.

While the national scouting organization sets broad policies, more than 290 local councils nationwide govern the day-to-day conduct of the more than 116,000 local organizations. Individual scouting troops are sponsored by religious and civic organizations that represent a diversity of views on the issue of allowing gay scouts and leaders.

“The beliefs of the sponsoring organizations are highly diverse,” the official said.

The policy change now under discussion “would allow the religious, civic or educational organizations that oversee and deliver Scouting to determine how to address this issue,” said the BSA's Smith.

“The Boy Scouts would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members or parents. 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,” he said.

In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that the Boy Scouts had a First Amendment right of free expression when it came to the organization’s belief that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with values stated in the scout oath, requiring scouts to be “morally straight.”

The Scouts have won similar legal battles, with courts finding that the BSA’s right of free association permits it, as a private organization, to reject those it believes do not conform to is values. 

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