IRVING, Texas — Just a week after Boy Scout officials signaled that they might lift a ban on gays, the national board on Wednesday postponed a vote, extending a debate that has roiled the organization.
The decision to take up the matter again at the group’s national meeting in May suggested that the board was buffeted by the furor that erupted after it announced it might allow local units to decide whether to admit gays as Scouts and leaders.
President Obama, several senators, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and others spoke out in favor of ending the ban, and petitions purportedly bearing 1.4 million signatures were presented at Scouting headquarters in Texas.
But the ban retained strong backing among important constituencies in the Scouts, including the Southern Baptist Convention and the Family Research Council, which took to the airwaves and bought an ad defending it.
“Due to the complexity of this issue, the organization needs time for a more deliberate review of its membership policy,” Deron Smith, a Boy Scouts of America spokesman, said in a statement Wednesday, adding that the board “directed its committees to further engage representatives of Scouting’s membership and listen to their perspectives and concerns.”
Some experts said the Boy Scouts’ decision to continue deliberating signaled a shift at a time when the organization is struggling to maintain its membership. It was down about 19% during the last decade to about 2.7 million as of 2011, the most recent year available.
“They have different constituencies and they’re being torn between them,” said Marc Poirier, a professor at Seton Hall University School of Law who has studied the Boy Scouts. “I’m sure there are some powerful individuals who feel the Scouts’ brand is tarnished if they back off the policy. And clearly there are people who feel that way on the other side.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the Scouts, as a private organization, could exclude gays. After a two-year internal review, the Boy Scouts board reaffirmed the ban in July.
Supporters of the ban were troubled to see Boy Scout leaders even considering a change.
“We have some serious misunderstandings in our upper echelons that they’re even willing to consider this,” said Chuck Helms, 55, a Dallas lawyer and assistant Scoutmaster who attended a rally outside Boy Scout headquarters near Dallas on Wednesday that was attended by more than 100 people.
He said he thought the board had been swayed by pressure from United Way chapters and other groups that have withheld funding because of the ban. One sign at the rally said: “It’s about the boys, not the donations — hold the line.”
“We have a board that seems to be more concerned with United Way donations than the messages we’re sending to our young people about character formation,” Helms said.
Wednesday’s announcement came during Boy Scouts’ bridging season, when boys rise to the next level of Scouting.
Some parents who support the ban said they were considering withdrawing their boys and enrolling them in religious youth programs such as the Southern Baptist Convention’s Royal Ambassadors, or perhaps forming new Scouting offshoots like the American Heritage Girls, created in 1995 as a Christian alternative to the Girl Scouts.
Marie LeGrand, 55, of Allen, Texas, promised to remove her 10-year-old son, Rory, from Scouting if the ban was lifted. His troop, like 70% nationwide, is sponsored by a faith-based group, the local Catholic church.
“I have four Eagles and two more to go, but we will drop Scouting if this goes through,” said LeGrand, adding that the delayed decision was “frustrating, disappointing because we’d like closure. We’ll probably go ahead and plan in case it does go through.”
Opponents of the ban were disappointed Wednesday, but encouraged that it may finally be lifted in May.
Cheyton Jain, 18, became an Eagle Scout last year as part of Santa Monica Troop 2, which he said had benefited from allowing gay members and the involvement of gay and lesbian parents — despite the national ban.
“This is a huge step” for the Boy Scouts of America, he said of the decision to consider lifting the ban. “With pressure coming from Obama, I think they’re coming to their senses. … As a liberal Boy Scout, I think this needs to be taken down. It’s going to cause a lot of controversy, but we’re going to benefit from it.”
Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl said he hoped the Boy Scouts could resist pressure from the Catholic and Mormon churches and lift the ban.
“I was a Life Scout, and as an elected official I have been giving out certificates to the Boy Scouts in my district, and I point out as I speak that I’m an openly gay man, and I’m doing this because I believe in young people,” he said, adding that he hoped Boy Scout leaders “become enlightened and realize that the spirit is working with them, and that gay people are people like they are.”
(The Mormon Church, in a statement Wednesday, said it welcomed the delay of a vote “until the implications can be more carefully evaluated.” The National Catholic Committee on Scouting said it planned to weigh in on the ban, which it called “a matter of responsibility, not a matter of unjust discrimination.”)
Opponents of the ban say that as public opinion shifts toward greater acceptance of gays and lesbians, so will the Boy Scouts. They cited a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday that found 55% of those polled opposed the ban and 33% supported it.
Complicating Scouting leaders’ decision, however, is an embarrassing scandal in the last year stemming from the release of hundreds of confidential files from past decades showing that the organization failed to keep out known molesters and hid allegations of sexual abuse from police, parents and the public.
Some supporters of the ban consider the revelations of child abuse in Scouting an important reason not to let gay leaders and Scouts participate.
“They’re just throwing in the towel and saying, ya’ll come!” said Bryan Fischer, a nationally syndicated radio host. “This is a suicide mission on the part of the Boy Scouts.”
Tony Perkins, the head of the conservative Family Research Council, last week cited the recently revealed abuse files as a reason to keep the ban: “With an open-door policy it can only get worse.”
Experts say such statements reflect a broader confusion about the difference between homosexuality and pedophilia, a sexual attraction to prepubescent children.
“There is absolutely no evidence to suggest permitting gay men to participate openly would increase rates of abuse,” said James Cantor, a senior scientist at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto and editor of a scientific journal on sex abuse. “Indeed, if history has taught us anything, it’s an environment that fosters shame and secrecy that facilitates instances of abuse.”
The Boy Scouts’ 1,400-member national council will take up the ban proposal at its national meeting in May in Grapevine, Texas, said Smith, the spokesman. Whatever its decision, the group is likely to be torn in months to come as the debate plays out.
“They’re in a lose-lose situation because either they’re going to lose some funding or they’re going to lose tons of members,” said Byron Barlowe, 50, of Plano, Texas, an assistant Scoutmaster who supports the ban and attended Wednesday’s rally outside Boy Scout headquarters. “I’m afraid the way the cultural tide is turning, this is inevitable.”
Times staff writers Jason Felch, Hailey Branson-Potts and Matt Stevens in Los Angeles contributed to this report.