NEW YORK (AP) - The Boy Scouts of America may soon give sponsors of troops the authority to decide whether to accept gays as scouts and leaders - a potentially dramatic retreat from an exclusionary nationwide policy that has provoked relentless protests.
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, as is now required of all units, or opening up their membership.
Gay-rights activists were elated at the prospect of change, sensing another milestone to go along with recent advances for same-sex marriage and the end of the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
However, Southern Baptist leaders - who consider homosexuality a sin - were furious about the possible change and said its approval might encourage Southern Baptist churches to support other boys' organizations instead of the BSA.
Monday's announcement of the possible change comes after years of protests over the no-gays policy - including petition campaigns that have prompted some corporations to suspend donations to the Boy Scouts.
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."
Smith said the change could be announced as early as next week, after BSA's national board concludes a regularly scheduled meeting on Feb. 6. The meeting will be closed to the public.
The BSA, 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.
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.
Prior to Monday's announcement, the BSA conferred with some leaders of these religious groups, including the Rev. Frank Page, who leads the Southern Baptist Executive Committee.
According to Roger S. Oldham, a spokesman for the executive committee, Page then wrote to the Scouts "expressing his tremendous dismay at the decision."
"They had been working for months on this proposal and just days before they informed us," Oldham said in a telephone interview.
"We would anticipate that there would be a very significant backlash to this as churches reevaluate whether scouting comports with."
If the Scouts proceed with the change, Oldham said, SBC leaders were likely to issue a statement "expressing disappointment and encouraging our churches to support alternative boys organizations."
The announcement came shortly after new data showed that membership in the Cub Scouts - the BSA's biggest division - dropped sharply last year, and was down nearly 30 percent over the past 14 years.
According to figures provided by the organization, Cub Scout ranks dwindled by 3.4 percent, from 1,583,166 in 2011 to 1,528,673 in 2012. That's down from 2.17 million in 1998.
The Boy Scouts attribute the decline largely to broad social changes, including the allure of video games and the proliferation of youth sports leagues and other options for after-school activities.
The BSA's overall "traditional youth membership" - Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Venturers - totaled 2,658,794 in 2012, compared to more than 4 million in peak years of the past. There were 910,668 Boy Scouts last year, a tiny increase from 2011, while the ranks of Venturers - a program for youths 14 and older- declined by 5.5 percent.
In addition to flak over the no-gays policy, the Scouts have been buffeted by multiple court cases related to past allegations of sexual abuse by Scout leaders, including those chronicled in long-confidential records that are widely known as the "perversion files."
Through various cases, the Scouts have been forced to reveal files dating from the 1960s to 1991. They detailed numerous cases where abuse claims were made and Boy Scout officials never alerted authorities and sometimes actively sought to protect the accused.