NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Boy Scouts of America on Friday proposed lifting a ban on gay scouts but maintaining a prohibition on gay adults from leading troops, a compromise that attempts to end a fight that has split the century-old American institution into bitter factions.
Reaction from scouting supporters ranged from outrage to limited approval. The biggest organization in scouts, the Mormon Church, said it was studying the proposal, leaving uncertain the outcome of a May vote by scout leaders that will set policy. Gay rights groups said continuing to bar gay adults was unacceptable, but they welcomed the change for youths.
"The general feeling is that this is a bad move," which could precipitate a major crisis, A.J. Smith, president of the Association of Baptists for Scouting, wrote in a website post, attempting to summarize Baptists' views. "This is about a concerted effort to bring down a cultural icon. We must brace ourselves for the long haul on this one."
The scouts' decision is a focal point of a heated gay rights debate in the United States, where polls show public opinion is fast moving toward greater acceptance and a core of social conservatives stridently oppose such change.
In the coming months, the Supreme Court will rule on whether to strike down parts of a federal law that defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman. In 2011, the military repealed a ban on openly gay soldiers.
The Boy Scouts proposal would create a situation where a gay youth could become a scout and then be forced to resign when he becomes an adult.
Scout leaders in 2000 won a Supreme Court battle over the right to exclude gays. There are more than 2.6 million youth scouts and 1 million adults, with faith-based groups sponsoring 70 percent of scout units.
If the resolution is approved, "no youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone," Deron Smith, the organization's spokesman, told Reuters.
But the policy is not changed for adults, the group said, and an internal document obtained by Reuters says that when youth members become adults, they "must meet the requirements of our adult standards" to remain in the group.
Smith said a parents in three of four U.S. regions opposed the current membership policy.
A report on the matter found religious groups linked to the Scouts were concerned with homosexual adult leaders, not with youth, and concluded "a change in the membership policy specific to youth only would be consistent with the religious beliefs of the BSA's major chartered organizations."
AT&T Chief Executive and Chairman Randall Stephenson, a Boy Scouts board member who had called for allowing gays scouts and a key corporate advocate on the issue, endorsed the new policy on youths but did not comment on banning gay adults.
"I fully support the BSA Executive Council's resolution to ensure all youth have the opportunity to participate in scouting and benefit from the life-long leadership skills scouting helps develop," he said in a statement.
Gay rights groups were quick to say the decision was not far-reaching enough.
"By refusing to consider an end to its ban on gay and lesbian parents, the Boy Scouts have missed an opportunity to exercise leadership and usher the organization back to relevancy," said Rich Ferraro, a spokesperson for GLAAD, which promotes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon church, which has more than 430,000 youths in scouts, "will take the time needed to fully review the language and study the implications of this new proposal," spokesman Michael Purdy said.
The Mormon church has consistently opposed gay marriage, and was a primary promoter of California's 2008 ban, known as Proposition 8. But recently it has emphasized respecting gay church members and declared that homosexuality is not a choice, reflecting changing attitudes among members.
"This was an exceptionally difficult decision as a business," said Patrick Boyle, whose 1994 book "Scout's Honor" examined sexual abuse in the Boy Scouts of America.
"They were stuck in a very bad spot with their constituents divided - constituents being the parents, and also the churches and the businesses that support the scouts."
The road to a decision has been long. In July 2012, the group's board voted to uphold the gay ban. Six months later, group leaders said they were mulling over whether to remove the national restriction, leaving local branches to decide whether to admit gays and lesbians. A final vote, expected in February, was delayed following a request from a coalition of 33 faith-based councils that represent about one-fifth of all youth members in the Boy Scouts.
Boyle notes that this reversal "shows how the gay rights movement has caught fire in the past dozen years."
Chuck Small, a BSA adult leader and the parent of 10- and 12-year-old scouts in South Carolina, welcomed the proposal.
"It's a hard and divisive issue, but what it comes down to is that we learn more from people who are different from us than people who are like us," Small said.
"I think it's a healthy thing, and I hope my boys are up to the challenge to accept people for what they do, rather than what they believe or how they're made up."
Additional reporting by Chris Francescani and Aruna Viswanatha; Editing by Vicki Allen, Andrew Hay, Eric Walsh and Stacey Joyce