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Boy Scouts vote on gay members: What's at stake

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With the Boy Scouts of America set to vote on a policy that would allow openly gay youths to participate, activists ramp up the volume on their protests.

After years of emotional debate, the Boy Scouts of America are considering a proposal at their annual meeting to allow gay youths to participate openly in the popular organization for the first time.

The exclusion of gay Scouts has been the subject of much wrangling and soul searching in the century-old organization -- from local troops and councils to online petitions to national board meetings. The dispute was even heard by the Supreme Court, which said 13 years ago that as a private membership organization the BSA was free to decide who it would admit.

Here is a rundown of what is at stake in the vote, which is scheduled to take place Thursday among the 1,400 delegates of the National Council gathered in Grapevine, Texas.

What would the new membership policy look like?

The proposal would lift the organization’s ban on openly gay youth participants, but it would continue to bar gay adults from being Scout leaders.

Subject to gut-wrenching debate over morality and rights, the proposal would impact more than 100,000 scouting units, such as Cub Scout packs and Boy Scout troops, that involve nearly 3 million youths and more than 1 million adults. Generations of Scouts have weighed in on the issue in private and in public, with partisans on both sides threatening to withdraw from participating depending on how it is resolved.

Why is the scouting organization considering this change now?

BSA leaders won’t say exactly why now, but more than a decade after the Supreme Court said the organization was on solid legal ground in excluding gays, the debate quite simply won’t go away. Last summer, the Boy Scouts reaffirmed their anti-gay policy, after a two-year examination by a committee. Since then, some local chapters have been pushing for a reconsideration.

Meanwhile issues related to gay rights -- such as gay marriage and adoption -- are gaining wider public acceptance, and lobbying campaigns by Jennifer Tyrrell, a lesbian who was ousted from her role as den mother last year, and Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout who was raised by two lesbian mothers, kept the debate in the public eye. Activists have also pressured corporate sponsors, many of which have non-discrimination clauses tied to their giving, to withdraw funding unless the policy is changed.

Stephen B. Thornton / Stephen B. Thornton for NBC News

Pack 215 Cub Scouts recite the Pledge of Allegiance at their pack meeting at Eagle Heights Baptist Church on Tuesday in Harrison, Ark. The church's pastor has said it will not stay on as sponsor if the policy is changed.

Who is for the proposal, and who is against?

It’s unclear exactly how many scouts and councils -- which oversee the scouting units -- are on each side of the debate, and we’ll have to wait for the results of the secret ballot to see which side is victorious. Some councils have publicly said they will not continue if gay youths are allowed, while others have called for gay adults to be included too.

Religion looms large over the debate. The Scouts explicitly invoke God in their membership guidelines, and more than 70 percent of Boy Scout units are sponsored by religious groups. One of the Southern Baptist Church leaders, Dr. Frank Page, last week implored the Boy Scouts not to change the policy. But The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints – the BSA's biggest charter partner-- has given tacit endorsement to the plan; the National Catholic Council on Scouting has yet to take a position.

Even Barack Obama and Mitt Romney weighed in on the debate during the presidential race. Perhaps one of the most important voices, BSA President Wayne Perry on Wednesday wrote an op-ed in USA TODAY supporting the inclusion of gay boys.

Under the proposal, what would happen to an Eagle Scout who is gay and wants to volunteer as an adult? That wouldn’t be allowed?

That is the big criticism of this policy in more progressive quarters: That life-long, successful scouts essentially will be banned from the organization on their 18th birthday because they are gay. Conservatives also note the tension inherent in the policy, saying it could be a slippery slope: They believe allowing gay youths would undermine the legal underpinnings of the Supreme Court decision, ultimately leading to gay adult volunteers being admitted into the organization.

Will individual local troops be allowed to exclude gay youths if they have moral objections?

In short, no. Here is how Deron Smith, spokesperson for the BSA puts it: “If passed, no youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone.” This has led some parents and Scout leaders who object to homosexuality to consider alternatives to Scouting, for fear that the resolution might pass.

If gays are allowed, will parents be able to object, for example, to their son sharing a tent with a gay Scout?

This is a real concern among some parents, as evidenced by its inclusion on the BSA’s internal survey on the issue. But Scouting leaders haven’t addressed the matter directly. Instead, they refer generally to maintaining a “supportive and safe environment for young people.” The organization has created a task force to make sure the policy could be implemented smoothly, and they are looking into how other organizations have handled these issues.

If it passes, will this proposal end the infighting, or is this just the beginning?

The BSA may hope this vote will end the debate, but more likely, it will touch off a whole new one. Some troops may disband. Those affiliated with Southern Baptist churches, for example, could lose their charters. And more liberal Scout leaders will lobby to have gay adults included as well -- an issue that is not going to fade anytime soon.

If you are a current or former member of the Boy Scouts and would like to share your thoughts on how your troop, pack or council is handling the possibility of a change in the membership policy, you can email the reporter at miranda.leitsinger@msnbc.com. We may use some comments for a follow-up story, so please specify if your remarks can be used and provide your name, hometown, age, Boy Scout affiliation and a phone number.

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