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NEW YORK – The Boy Scouts of America may soon give sponsors of troops the authority to decide whether to accept gays as Scouts and leaders – a potentially dramatic retreat from an exclusionary nationwide policy that has provoked relentless protests.

Under the change now being discussed, the different religious and civic groups that sponsor Scout units would be able to decide for themselves how to address the issue – either maintaining an exclusion of gays, as is now required of all units, or opening up their membership.

Gay-rights activists were elated at the prospect of change, sensing another milestone to go along with recent advances for same-sex marriage and the end of the ban on gays serving openly in the military.

However, Southern Baptist leaders – who consider homosexuality a sin – were furious about the possible change and said its approval might encourage Southern Baptist churches to support other boys organizations instead of the BSA.

Monday’s announcement comes after years of protests over the no-gays policy – including petition campaigns that have prompted some corporations to suspend donations to the Boy Scouts. Under the proposed change, said BSA spokesman Deron Smith, “the Boy Scouts would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members or parents.”

Smith said the change could be announced as early as next week, after the BSA’s national board concludes a regularly scheduled meeting Feb. 6. The BSA, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2010, has long excluded both gays and atheists. Smith said that 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 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, pressure surfaced on the Scouts’ own national executive board. Two high-powered members – Ernst & Young CEO James Turley and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson – indicated they would try to work from within to change the membership policy, which stood in contrast to their own companies’ nondiscrimination policies. 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.

Also, local Scout officials drew widespread criticism in recent months for ousting Jennifer Tyrrell, a lesbian mom, as a den leader of her son’s Cub Scout pack in Ohio and for refusing to approve an Eagle Scout application by Ryan Andresen, a California teen who came out as gay last fall.

Tyrrell said she’s thrilled for parents and their children who’ve been excluded from Scouting and “for those who are in Scouts and hiding who they are.”

“For me it’s not just about the Boy Scouts of America, it’s about equality,” she said.

Many of the protest campaigns, including one seeking Tyrrell’s reinstatement, had been waged with help from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

“The Boy Scouts of America have heard from Scouts, corporations and millions of Americans that discriminating against gay Scouts and Scout leaders is wrong,” said Herndon Graddick, GLAAD’s president. “Scouting is a valuable institution, and this change will only strengthen its core principles of fairness and respect.”

The Scouts had reaffirmed the no-gays policy as recently as last year and appeared to have strong backing from conservative religious denominations – notably the Mormons, Catholics and Southern Baptists – which sponsor large numbers of Scout units. Under the proposed change, they could continue excluding gays. Prior to Monday’s announcement, the BSA conferred with some leaders of these religious groups, including the Rev. Frank Page, who leads the Southern Baptist Executive Committee. According to Roger S. Oldham, a spokesman for the executive committee, Page then wrote to the Scouts “expressing his tremendous dismay at the decision.”

“They had been working for months on this proposal, and just days before they informed us,” Oldham said in a telephone interview. “We would anticipate that there would be a very significant backlash to this...” If the Scouts proceed with the change, Oldham said, SBC leaders were likely to issue a statement “expressing our disappointment and encouraging our churches to support alternative boys organizations.”

Neither the Catholic Church nor the Mormons’ Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued official statements. Said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “The bishops hope the Boy Scouts will continue to work under the Judeo-Christians principles upon which they were founded and under which they have served youth well.”