Robert M. Gates, the president of the Boy Scouts of America, urged the group on Thursday during its annual meeting in Atlanta to end its ban on gay leaders, saying the prohibition "cannot be sustained."
"I truly fear that any other alternative will be the end of us as a national movement," said Gates, former CIA director and secretary of Defense.
He recommended that local Scouting groups be allowed to decide for themselves whether to allow gay leaders.
Advocates of gays in Scouting cheered in celebration.
"He's made it clear that if the Boy Scouts don't make the change on their terms, the courts will change it on their terms," said Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout and executive director of the advocacy group Scouts for Equality.
"Now we need to make sure not only does that ban come to an end, but that it's enforced across the country," Wahls said, adding, "There needs to be full inclusion for gay adults."
Others had a more mixed reaction.
"It's one of those things I was hoping I wouldn't have to think about for years to come," said David Barton, an Orange County Cubmaster, assistant Scoutmaster, Eagle Scout and the father of two boys in Scouting.
Barton, 50, says he does not think it's fair to allow gay boys into Scouting and then exclude them when they become adults. At the same time, however, he has reservations about allowing openly gay men to be Scout leaders.
Barton said it "would be silly to think that a higher percentage of gay men want to do harm to boys than straight men." But he said he and other parents he knows still have reservations about gay Scout leaders accompanying groups of boys on camping trips.
"Just the conversations I hear from people about gay adult leaders — that there may be some who try to take advantage of it just to be around boys," he said. "I guess we'll just hope that background checks and stuff pick up on that."
Gates' remarks come two years after a public battle over gays in Scouting that ended with a vote during the Boy Scouts' national meeting to allow gay Scouts but not gay leaders.
Years ago, the Boy Scouts had created a youth protection program to prevent abuse by leaders that was rivaling that in many other youth groups and sports teams, said Jay Mechling, professor emeritus of American studies at UC Davis and author of "On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth."
"When they changed the policy for minors, everyone knew that this couldn't last very long, because you were inevitably going to have a kid turn 18 and he still wants to be active and now all of a sudden he can't be a volunteer leader," Mechling said.
Last year, Gates became president of the Boy Scouts, and although he said he would have preferred the full inclusion of gays, he accepted the 2013 vote and said he wouldn't reopen the issue during his two-year term.
Then this year, conservative lawmakers in Indiana drew criticism and boycotts after passing legislation allowing business owners to deny service to gay customers.
Gates said on Thursday that the status quo was no longer acceptable.
He cited the Indiana protests as a sign that the country's attitude toward gays is quickly changing.
"The one thing we cannot do is put our heads in the sand and pretend this challenge will go away or abate. Quite the opposite is happening.... We can act on our own or we can be forced to act, but either way I suspect we don't have a lot of time," he said.
Gates said Scout officials and lawyers would develop a strategy to deal with gay leadership in coming months.
He emphasized that individual troops and councils would be able to decide for themselves whether to allow gay leaders.
"We must, at all costs, preserve the religious freedom of our church partners to do this," Gates said, adding, "We want and value your thoughts on all this."
Jonathan Saenz, president of the conservative Austin-based Texas Values advocacy group, said the speech showed that Gates and other Scout officials were out of touch with
the "heart and soul" of Scouting.
"What makes the Boy Scouts work are the parents and children who do it every week and are involved.… They have been ignored year after year on this issue. When the change was made two years ago on the kids, the majority of parents opposed it, but the leadership changed it anyway," said Saenz, who had organized protests at Boy Scout headquarters before the 2013 vote.
"The real question is, if this change goes into effect, will large Christian entities like the Catholic Church go along with it?" he asked.
Ed Martin, chairman of the National Catholic Committee on Scouting, did not return calls or email Thursday.
Religious groups sponsor about 70% of troops, Gates said. But the largest religious sponsor, the Mormon Church, changed its position to support including gay youth in Scouting before the vote two years ago.
On Thursday, Mormon officials released a statement saying they would consider Gates' recommendations and how they would affect the church's century-long association with the Boy Scouts.
Officials from the Southern Baptist Convention, which had issued a resolution condemning the Boy Scouts for admitting gay youth, rejected Gates' announcement.
"The Boy Scouts have planted the seed of their eventual destruction," said convention spokesman Roger "Sing" Oldham.
After the 2013 decision, some conservative churches stopped sponsoring troops, he said, and "this may lead other churches to do the same."
"A lot of churches took a wait-and-see stance, and they may do that again and see how this announcement plays out for their chapters," Oldham said. "There have also been alternative organizations formed that are growing and the Boy Scouts are shrinking."
About 2.4 million youth participated in the nearly 105-year-old Texas-based Scouting program last year, about a 7% decrease from the year before, when enrollment was down by 6%.
The number of adult volunteers also decreased last year, to 981,000, down from slightly over 1 million the year before.
Conservative youth groups such as the Baptists' Royal Ambassadors and Trail Life USA have drawn new members, but are still dwarfed by the Boy Scouts.
In response to Gates' speech, some will probably leave Scouting while others will return, said Alan Snyder, chairman of the board of the Boy Scouts' Western Los Angeles County Council, which includes about 14,000 Scouts and 5,000 volunteers.
"We'll be living through, I'm afraid, some additional turmoil. We fought the good fight and organizations take time to change," said Snyder, whose council has a nondiscrimination policy and already accepts gay leaders.
Howard Menzer, an Eagle Scout and longtime troop leader who was in Scouting for more than 50 years when he quit in 1999 to protest what he considered discriminatory practices, said he was "tickled" by Gates' comments.
Menzer, who heads the San Diego advocacy group Scouting for All, said he'd written to Gates just a week ago, urging him to let sponsoring organizations decide who should lead troops.
"I am happy as a lark," he said. "It was about time. it was a 20-plus year fight. I'm glad they finally understood what we have been talking about, and that is the local issue: The sponsor of the troop decides the makeup of the troop."
David Meshulam, immediate past president of the Boy Scouts' Los Angeles Area Council, said Gates' comments marked another step toward making the organization "completely transparent and inclusive."
"He is echoing the sentiment of the majority of the urban councils, the larger urban councils, that we are out of step with the times and that we need to adopt what is essentially the law of the land," said Meshulam, who remains on the council's executive board.
He said Scouting had suffered because of the public perception of the organization as exclusionary. He noted that concerns expressed by opponents to opening membership to gay boys had proved unfounded, saying, "We have had no problems whatsoever."
Among gay leaders who may be able to return soon is Brian Peffly.
Peffly, 35, an assistant Scoutmaster and Eagle Scout from Westerville, Ohio, was forced to leave Troop 192 last March after his work with Scouts for Equality drew the attention of national Scout leaders.
A former science teacher at Verbum Dei High School in Watts and Palisades Charter High School, Peffly is now a critical-care nurse.
"I think that I and a lot of other gay adult leaders are role models — we just happen to be gay. If we can be open and honest about who we are, we are modeling the first rule of the Scout law — be honest," he said, adding, "It really hurts when a Scout comes up to me and they want me to sign a requirement off in their Scout book and I have to say no because my signature would not be valid."
He said he hoped Scouting leaders would take to heart what Gates said about taking courageous steps before courts force them to act, and staying on the right side of history.
"When you're doing it without a choice, there's no honor in that," Peffly said. "But if they do it while they still have a choice, they can save the honor of the organization."