NEW YORK — The Boy Scouts of America is considering a dramatic retreat from its controversial policy of excluding gays as leaders and youth members.

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 or opening up their membership.

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Monday’s announcement of the possible change comes after years of protests over the policy — including petition campaigns that have prompted some corporations to suspend donations to the Boy Scouts.

Steve Wilburn, council executive of the Old Hickory Council of Boys Scouts of America in Winston-Salem, said, “Local scout councils agree to support whatever decision is made by our national board.”

Rodney Carpenter, scout executive and chief executive officer of the Old North State Council of Boys Scouts of America in Greensboro, said that allowing sponsors of Scout units, such as churches and civic groups, to decide on a policy is fair.

Both Wilburn and Carpenter declined to give their views on allowing gays to become Scout leaders and youth members.

“It would be inappropriate for me to respond one way or another,” Wilburn said.

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.”

The Boys Scouts, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2010, has long excluded both gays and atheists. Smith said 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 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 local Scout councils made public their displeasure with the policy.

More recently, 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, Ohio 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 and for refusing to approve an Eagle Scout application by Ryan Andresen, a California teen who came out as gay last fall.

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, Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists — which sponsor large numbers of Scout units. Under the proposed change, they could continue excluding gays.

Journal reporter John Hinton contributed to this story.

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