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Boy Scouts president calls for end to ban on gay troop leaders

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Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File

(Read caption) Boy Scout Pascal Tessier (center left) and his brother Lucien Tessier, who had earned the rank of Eagle Scout, pose for a portrait with their parents, Oliver Tessier (l.) and Tracie Felker, at their home in Kensington, Md. on Feb. 4, 2013. On April 2, the Boy Scouts’ New York chapter announced it hired Pascal Tessier as the nation’s first openly gay Eagle Scout as a summer camp leader in public contrast to the national scouting organization’s ban on openly gay adult members.

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The days of the Boy Scouts long-standing ban on gay troop leaders may be numbered.

Boy Scouts of America president Robert Gates called for an end to the controversial ban while addressing the organization's annual meeting. The move could be a step toward ending a policy that has divided members of one of the largest youth organizations in the country, advocates say.

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"We are 180 degrees from where we were a year ago," Zach Wahls, executive director of Scouts for Equality, told Reuters. "This is a very, very positive development."

In 2013 the organization revoked its ban on the membership of gay youth. Nevertheless, openly gay adults are still prohibited from serving in the organization. The 2014 selection of Mr. Gates, who as United States secretary of Defense helped end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that barred openly gay individuals from serving in the military, was seen by some as an opportunity to revisit the debate over the organization’s policy.

“Dr. Gates has built his reputation on straight talk and tough decisions, and I’m glad he’s fully endorsing a re-evaluation of the Boy Scouts’ ban on gay adults,” Mr. Wahls said in a statement.

“It seems like the Boy Scouts will continue an internal dialogue about the subject and that a change within the next year or two is imminent.”

While Gates said he would not push for any policy changes to be adopted at the current meeting, he suggested that the policy could be revised at some point in the near future so that each local Scout organization can decide whether it will allow openly gay leaders.

However, Gates also stressed that the religious institutions that sponsor many of the local Boy Scouts chapters, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the United Methodist Church, should be permitted to set their own policies in regard to leadership. Currently, churches sponsor around 70 percent of the Scout units.

Meanwhile, the decision to change the policy faces vocal opposition from some members of religious organizations. 

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“It’s an extreme example of a man who normally has sound judgment having that judgment become unhinged by a commitment to political correctness," says Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Matthews, N.C.

The ban on openly gay Scout leaders was challenged for the first time in April when the Greater New York Council of Boy Scouts hired an openly gay adult as a summer camp leader.

“The New York hire of Mr. Tessier not only issued yet another challenge to the organization’s traditional restrictions on openly gay leaders, it also laid bare the growing divisions among the nation’s religious institutions over the status of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people among their ranks,” Monitor journalist Harry Bruinius wrote at the time.

Now, Gates says that because many states are passing laws that protect employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation, the Boy Scouts of America will need to modify its policy or face potential legal battles and internal challenges.

"We must deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be," Gates said during his address. "The status quo in our movement’s membership standards cannot be sustained."