The Boy Scouts of America soon may allow openly gay members and leaders in its ranks, a move that could have a dramatic impact on the group's century-old relationship with its top sponsor: the Utah-based LDS Church.
The proposed change would allow religious and civic groups that sponsor Scout units to decide for themselves whether to continue excluding gays or let them join.
"The Boy Scouts would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members or parents," BSA spokesman Deron Smith told The Associated Press.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which got its Scouting charter in 1913, declined to comment Monday, saying it would be "inappropriate" to do so until the decision is announced after next week's BSA national board meeting.
Kay Godfrey, spokesman for the Scouts' Great Salt Lake Council, said he was unaware of the proposal until reading it in the news but acknowledged that the question of gay members "is a major issue with regards to this state and our supporting organizations and a major change for the Boy Scouts."
Godfrey said that all the large sponsoring organizations have given input on the issue, but the spokesman had "no insight on how they responded."
The 14 million-member LDS Church has 420,977 youths in 37,882 Scouting units.
The faith allows chaste gays to hold "callings," or positions in its organizations, when chosen by local Mormon leaders, and its written guidelines do not exclude Scouting.
Kendall Wilcox, an openly gay Mormon filmmaker, cheered the possible BSA shift.
"If this goes through, local wards will be free to continue to include LGBT Scout leaders and youth in the program. This is a good step forward," Wilcox wrote in an email. "The church's policy is already there. We just have to help everyone follow through in local chapel practice."
Mormons Building Bridges, a group of Latter-day Saints dedicated to conveying love and acceptance to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, has been "gathering stories of LDS units across the country who have quietly been disregarding the national [Scouting] policy for quite some time. They have been coming out of the closet lately, coaxed on by the church's launch of mormonsandgays.org and its clear edict of inclusion of all LGBT members," Wilcox said. "But I have also heard many more stories of Scouts, leaders and bishops who felt compelled by their perception of church policy and BSA policy to remove LGBT youth."
Given the negative reactions to this news in some quarters, Wilcox said Bridges is orchestrating a "thank you" letter-writing campaign to BSA headquarters.
Wilcox sees this potential move by the Scouts as aligning the group closer to the Mormon stance.
"With counsel from [LDS apostle] D. Todd Christofferson to leaders to listen and to LGBT members to 'stay with us,'" Wilcox said, "this BSA policy change will help LDS troops more openly stay in line with this wise and loving counsel from the church."
Protests over the no-gays policy gained momentum in 2000 when the U.S. 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 Scout councils voiced their displeasure with the ban.
More recently, according to the AP, 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.
Scouting officials also 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.
Smith said the change could be announced as early as Feb. 6 after BSA's national board holds a regularly scheduled meeting. He said the organization was not considering a retreat from its ban on atheists in Scouting.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
LDS policy on gays
"If members feel same-gender attraction but do not engage in any homosexual behavior, leaders should support and encourage them in their resolve to live the law of chastity and to control unrighteous thoughts. These members may receive church callings. If they are worthy and qualified in every other way, they may also hold temple recommends and receive temple ordinances."
Source: "Handbook 2: Administering the Church," instructions for LDS leaders, which is available publicly online
Boy Scouts' top sponsors
1. LDS Church, 420,977 youths in 37,882 units.
2. United Methodist Church, 371,491 youths in 11,078 units.
3. Catholic Church, 283,642 youths in 8,570 units.
4. Parent-teacher groups, other than PTAs, 153,214 youths in 3,712 units.
5. Presbyterian Church, 127,931 youths in 3,663 units.
Source: 2011 Boy Scouts of America Local Council Index