Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said Tuesday that the Boy Scouts of America perpetuates "the worst stereotypes" by barring gay people from becoming Scout leaders.
"The continuation of a policy that discriminates against gay adult leaders – by an iconic American institution – only preserves and perpetuates the worst kind of stereotypes," Holder said in a speech to the gay civil rights group Lambda Legal in Washington.
Holder did not announce any legal action against the Boy Scouts. A Supreme Court decision 14 years ago said the Scouts, as a private entity, had a right to discriminate against gays.
Last year the Irving, Texas-based organization softened its policy toward gays in a compromise move. After initially saying it intended to allow gays to serve as both Scouts and Scout leaders, it instead allowed openly gay boys to participate in Scouting but continued to prohibit those 18 and older from serving as leaders.
In an approach similar to the "don't ask don't tell" arrangement in place in the U.S. military until three years ago, the group has said it will dismiss gay leaders only if they publicly announce their sexual orientation.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, after he was elected president of the Boy Scouts last month, said he would have preferred that the organization open up completely to gays but that he would not push for it at the moment.
Boy Scouts spokesman Deron Smith issued a conciliatory statement in response to Holder's speech.
"We recognize there are many opinions on these matters," he said. "The Boy Scouts of America believes that to disagree does not mean to disrespect; we remain focused on delivering the nation's foremost youth development program."
Though President Obama has criticized the Boy Scouts' policy, Holder, who won the admiration of gay groups for refusing to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, was much tougher in his comments.
He said the Scouts' policy is "a relic of an age of prejudice and insufficient understanding."