By Marice Richter
DALLAS (Reuters) - Boy Scouts of America is considering ending a longstanding national ban on gay youth and adult members and leaving policies on sexual orientation to its local organizations, a spokesman said on Monday.
Lifting the ban would mark a dramatic reversal for the 103-year-old organization, which only last summer reaffirmed its policy amid heavy criticism from gay rights groups and some parents of scouts.
The organization's national executive board is expected to discuss lifting the ban on gay members at its regularly scheduled board meeting next week in Texas.
"The policy change under discussion would allow the religious, civic or educational organizations that oversee and deliver Scouting to determine how to address this issue," spokesman Deron Smith said in an email to Reuters.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the United Methodist Church and the Catholic Church have the largest youth membership in the Boy Scouts among faith-based organizations.
The organization, which had more than 2.6 million youth members and more than 1 million adult members at the end of 2012, "would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members, or parents," Smith said.
The Boy Scouts has also faced criticism for keeping private files covering decades of child sex abuse incidents within the organization. The Scouts released thousands of pages of files in October covering incidents from 1965 to 1985.
The Boy Scouts won a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing the organization to ban gays in 2000, but has come under increasing public pressure in recent years from activists. They include Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout with two lesbian mothers, and Jennifer Tyrrell, a lesbian mother from Ohio who was ousted as a Scout den leader and treasurer.
"This is absolutely a step in the right direction," said Wahls, who is founder of Scouts for Equality, a group that includes 3,151 other Eagle scouts.
Wahls said he would turn to persuading local councils to enact nondiscrimination policies if the change is approved.
Tyrrell said she looked forward to a day when she and her family might participate in scouting again.
"An end to this ban will restore dignity to countless families across the country, my own included, who simply wanted to take part in all Scouting has to offer," Tyrrell said in a statement.
GLAAD, an anti-discrimination advocacy group, began to press for a reversal of the Boy Scouts policy after Tyrrell was removed from her son's den and more than 1 million people have signed petitions on Change.org seeking an end to the policy.
More than 462,000 people signed a petition on Change.org calling for the Boy Scouts to grant an Eagle Scout application for Ryan Andresen, a California resident who is openly gay.
Andresen's scoutmaster refused to sign the application because of his sexual orientation. A review board for the California chapter recommended he receive the rank, but its recommendation was never forwarded to national headquarters.
The organization has faced pressure from board members - Ernst & Young chairman and chief executive Jim Turley and AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson have spoken out against the ban - and some corporations withdrew support over the policy.
United Parcel Service was among corporations that have said they would pull funding from the organization over its policy.
The Family Research Council, which said in December it would pull its business with UPS because the package delivery company had decided to cease funding of the Boy Scouts, said on Monday the Scouts should resist the pressure to change its policy.
"If the board capitulates to the bullying of homosexual activists, the Boy Scouts' legacy of producing great leaders will become yet another casualty of moral compromise," Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said in a statement.
Patrick Boyle, whose 1994 book "Scout's Honor" was among the first to examine sexual abuse in the Boy Scouts of America, said on Monday the "striking reversal in policy" was likely the result of growing pressure from corporations.
"This is a safe way out of this mess for the national organization, which takes the fight back to the local level, and says to a local leader, 'you make the choice that's right for you'," Boyle said. "It's essentially the Boy Scouts' version of states' rights."
(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson, Barbara Liston and Chris Francescani; Writing by Greg McCune and David Bailey; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Andrew Hay)