IRVING, Texas - Caught in an ideological crossfire, the Boy Scouts of America is retreating until May from a decision about whether to ease its policy of excluding gays. Whatever the organization eventually does, it's likely to anger major constituencies and worsen schisms within Scouting.
The delay, which the Scouts attributed to "the complexity of this issue," was announced Wednesday after closed-door deliberations by the BSA's national executive board. Under consideration was a proposal to ease the longstanding ban on gays by allowing sponsors of local troops to decide for themselves on the membership of gay Scouts and adult leaders.
As the board met over three days at a hotel near Dallas, it became clear that the proposal would be unacceptable to large numbers of impassioned Scouting families and advocacy groups on both the left and right.
The iconic youth organization is now deeply entangled in the broader cultural and political conflicts over such issues as same-sex marriage and religious freedom. Tilting toward either side will probably alienate the other, and a midway balancing act will be difficult.
Gay-rights supporters contend that no Scout units anywhere should exclude gays, and vowed to maintain pressure on the BSA's corporate donors to achieve that goal. Some conservatives, including religious leaders whose churches sponsor troops, warned of mass defections if the ban were even partially eased. They urged supporters to flood headquarters with phone calls.
"In the past two weeks, Scouting has received an outpouring of feedback from the American public," said the BSA's national spokesman, Deron Smith. "It reinforces how deeply people care about Scouting and how passionate they are about the organization."
The BSA "needs time for a more deliberate review of its membership policy," Smith added. He said the board would prepare a resolution to be voted on by the 1,400 voting members of the BSA national council at a meeting during the week of May 20 in Grapevine, Texas.
The organization had announced last week that it was considering allowing Scout troops to decide whether to allow gay membership, ensuring that the executive board meeting would be in the national spotlight.
Learning that a decision would be deferred, gay-rights leaders assailed the BSA.
"Every day that the Boy Scouts of America delay action is another day that discrimination prevails," said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign. "Young Americans, gay and straight, are hurt by the inaction associated with today's news."
"A Scout is supposed to be brave, and the Boy Scouts failed to be brave today," said Jennifer Tyrrell, an Ohio mother ousted as a den leader of her son's Cub Scout pack because she's a lesbian.
"They failed us yet again," she told The Associated Press. "Putting this off until May only ensures other gay kids and gay parents are discarded."
Tyrrell was among several current and former Scouts and supporters who rallied outside BSA national headquarters Monday and delivered petitions opposing the policy.
Conservative leaders made clear they would keep pressure on the BSA ahead of the May meeting.
Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council said his group would continue warning the BSA "about the grave consequences that would result if they were to compromise their moral standards in the face of threats from corporate elites and homosexual activists."
About 70 percent of all Scout units are sponsored by religious denominations, including many by conservative faiths that have supported the ban, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Mormon church.
The delay was welcomed by Southern Baptist leaders, some of whom had said they would urge their churches to seek alternatives to the Boy Scouts if the ban were eliminated.
In comments to the Baptist Press, the denomination's official news agency, SBC President Fred Luter suggested that "prayers of the righteous" played a role in the BSA decision.
The National Catholic Committee on Scouting said it would join in the BSA's consultations over the coming months. Whatever the outcome, the committee said, "Catholic chartered units will continue to provide leaders who promote and live Catholic values."
Michael Purdy, a spokesman at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints headquarters in Utah, said the BSA "acted wisely in delaying its decision until all voices can be heard on this important moral issue."
The extra time will give local Scout leaders in Utah and elsewhere time to determine how their members feel about the proposal, said Kay Godfrey, a spokesman for Boy Scouts in the Great Salt Lake Council. The heavily Mormon council is one of the largest in the country, with 5,500 troops and 73,400 youth members.
"It's so important and so historic in nature that serious deliberation over time, involving a broad spectrum of folks, is needed," Godfrey said.
Outside BSA headquarters, hundreds of supporters of the ban held a rally and prayer vigil Wednesday, carrying signs that read, "Don't invite sin into the camp" and "Homosexuality is a sin! BSA please resist Satan's test. Uphold the ban."
Scoutmaster Darrel Russell of Weatherford, west of Fort Worth, took his wife and five of their seven children to the rally. Russell said having gays in the scouting movement would be like mixing boys and girls.
"The whole idea is to protect our boys at all costs," Russell said, warning that if the ban is lifted, "we're shutting down our troop."
Among those joining the debate was New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an Eagle Scout who told reporters the ban should be lifted.
"I can't urge them enough to make sure that every young man is eligible, regardless of his orientation, to be a scout and to benefit from a great program that really helps kids develop," he said.
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to comment on the BSA's delay but reiterated President Barack Obama's view that gays should be able to participate in the Scouts.
Members of the Scouts' executive board remained silent about their deliberations during and after their meeting. Police and security guards blocked journalists from entering the meeting area, and board members approached as they walked to their cars outside the hotel declined to comment.
However, it's likely the board - and corporations that contribute to the BSA - will face continued pressure.
By delaying the vote, the Scouts "have guaranteed continuing controversy and increased pressures on corporate sponsors to withdraw funding," said professor Kenneth Sherrill, a gay rights advocate who teaches political science at Hunter College in New York.
No national polling has been released conveying how current Scout parents and leaders feel about the ban. But overall, U.S. voters favor eliminating it by 55 percent to 33 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday. Quinnipiac said the poll's margin of error was plus/minus 2.3 percentage points.
"Now that the armed forces ban on openly gay service members has been lifted, and polls show increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage, most American voters think it's time to open up the Boy Scouts, too," said Peter Brown, assistant director of Quinnipiac's Polling Institute.