The Boy Scouts of America, which confirmed last summer its policy banning openly gay people from participation, then said last week that it was reconsidering the ban, announced Wednesday that it would postpone a decision once more, until May, as talk of gays in the ranks has roiled a storied organization that carries deep emotional connection and nostalgia for millions of Americans.
An end to the national ban on gays, which the U.S. Supreme Court said in 2000 was legal free speech by a private organization, would create a new moment of risk, experimentation and change, people on both sides of the issue said. The proposal floated last week would allow local scouting units to decide membership rules for themselves, a middle road.
Even proposing the change created fracture lines. Some supporters of the ban said they feared a wave of departures by conservative church-sponsored troops, while supporters of a new policy said the risk was in not going far enough -- although each side acknowledged that scouting, with fewer boys every year wearing the tan uniform, needed to find new ways to connect with young people.
Those scout leaders who favored an about-face on gays -- prohibiting discrimination everywhere in the organization -- said local choice would leave scouting open to criticism, because discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation would still be tolerated.
The Boy Scouts said in a statement that it had received "an outpouring of feedback from the American public." The statement continued: "After careful consideration and extensive dialogue within the scouting family, along with comments from those outside the organization, the volunteer officers of the Boy Scouts of America's National Executive Board concluded that due to the complexity of this issue, the organization needs time for a more deliberate review."
The debate, according to scout leaders and parents, was shaped by two great forces that have defined scouting for decades: the huge role played by churches in sponsoring scout troops and the tradition of local control, which can differ greatly from urban downtowns to rural farm country.
Maintaining local control became a crossroads of the debate. Although many church sponsors -- almost 70 percent of local scout units are backed by a religion-based group -- are culturally conservative, they also hugely cherish the right to make scouting an adjunct of their respective belief systems. In Mormon-led scout troops, a Mormon-style prayer usually opens and closes a troop's meeting, while in a Catholic group, it might be the Lord's Prayer.
"In a free society, organizations fail or flourish according to the private choices of innumerable families," the Boy Scouts said in a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2000 case. "A society in which each and every organization must be equally diverse is a society which has destroyed diversity," the Boy Scouts argued.
Jay L. Lenrow, who grew up in scouting as a Jewish boy in New Jersey and stayed involved as an adult scout volunteer in Baltimore, where he works as a lawyer, said he thought that eventual acceptance of opposing views about gay leaders -- troops and families and churches choosing different paths, to allow gay volunteers or not -- would become an enriching element of the scouting experience going forward. Mr. Lenrow called the decision to defer a vote on the proposed change "hugely disappointing."
"As a youth in scouting, I sat in tents during the night after lights out with my Catholic friends and my Protestant friends, and kids who were Armenian Orthodox or Greek Orthodox, and we would tell each other what it meant to us to be a member of our religious grouping, and what the principles were and what we were taught," he said. "What that led to is, first of all, an understanding of what made my friends tick and, second of all, an appreciation for their feelings and their religious beliefs."
Other people urged the board to hold firm to the ban when it resumes discussion in May. "Do not back off against the principles you've had for 100 years," said Kelly Williamson, 52, a second-generation scout in the Dallas suburbs. "Really, this is nothing against the gay community," he added. "Have them form their own organization. It's kind of ironic, gay scouts come in and saying, 'We want you to change how you've done this for 100 years.' "
A national poll released Wednesday by Quinnipiac University said 55 percent of voters supported opening up scouting to gays, to 33 percent opposed. The poll of 1,772 registered voters, taken from Jan. 30 to Feb. 4, after the proposed change was announced by the Boy Scouts, had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2 percentage points. Women, 61 percent to 27 percent, were more likely than men to favor dropping the ban. Among men, 49 percent approved ending the ban, compared with 39 percent opposed.