NEW YORK -- The Boy Scouts of America may soon give troop sponsors 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 being discussed, religious and civic groups that sponsor Scout units would be able to decide for themselves how to address the issue, either maintaining exclusion of gays -- as is now required of all units -- or opening up their membership.
Gay-rights activists were elated at the prospect, sensing another milestone to go along with recent advances for same-sex marriage and an end to the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
But Southern Baptist leaders, who consider homosexuality a sin, were furious, saying approval of such a change 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, "the Boy Scouts would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members or parents," BSA spokesman Deron Smith said. He said the change could be announced as early as next week, after BSA's national board concludes a regularly scheduled meeting 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. Mr. Smith said a change in the atheist ban was not being considered, and that the BSA continued to view "Duty to God" as one of its basic principles.
Many protest campaigns had been waged with help from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
"The Boy Scouts of America have heard from scouts, corporations and millions of Americans that discriminating against gay Scouts and Scout leaders is wrong," GLAAD president Herndon Graddick said. "Scouting is a valuable institution, and this change will only strengthen its core principles of fairness and respect."
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. The proposed change would let them continue to exclude 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 executive committee spokesman Roger S. Oldham, Rev. 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," Mr. Oldham said. If the Scouts proceed with the change, Mr. Oldham said, SBC leaders were likely to issue a statement "expressing disappointed and encouraging our churches to support alternative boys organizations."
Said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, "The bishops hope the Boy Scouts will continue to work under the Judeo-Christian principles upon which they were founded and under which they have served youth well."
Were the change adopted, the BSA's Mr. Smith said, "there would no longer be any national policy regarding sexual orientation, and the chartered organizations that oversee and deliver Scouting would accept membership and select leaders consistent with each organization's mission, principles, or religious beliefs.
"BSA members and parents would be able to choose a local unit that best meets the needs of their families," he said. "Under this proposed policy, the BSA would not require any chartered organization to act in ways inconsistent with that organization's mission, principles, or religious beliefs."
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 proliferation of youth sports leagues and other options for after-school activities.
But critics suggest that Scouting's recruitment efforts have been hampered by high-profile controversies, notably the court-ordered release of files dealing with sex-abuse allegations and persistent protests over the no-gays policy.
The BSA's overall "traditional youth membership" -- Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Venturers -- totaled 2,658,794 in 2012, compared with 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.