In this Friday, May 23, 2014, file photo, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates addresses the Boy Scouts of America's annual meeting in Nashville after being selected as the organization's new president. On Thursday Gates said that the organization's longstanding ban on participation by openly gay adults is no longer sustainable, and called for change in order to avert potentially destructive legal battles.

NEW YORK -- The president of the Boy Scouts of America, Robert Gates, said Thursday that the organization's longstanding ban on participation by openly gay adults is no longer sustainable and called for change in order to prevent "the end of us as a national movement."

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In a speech in Atlanta to the Scouts' national annual meeting, Gates referred to recent moves by Scout councils in New York City and elsewhere to defy the ban.

"The status quo in our movement's membership standards cannot be sustained," he said.

Gates said no change in the policy would be made at the national meeting. But he raised the possibility of revising the policy at some point soon so that local Scout organizations could decide on their own whether to allow gays as adult volunteers and paid staff.

In 2013, after bitter internal debate, the BSA decided to allow openly gay youth as Scouts, but not gay adults as leaders. The change took effect in January 2014.

Gates, who became the BSA's president in May 2014, said at the time that he personally would have favored ending the ban on gay adults, but he opposed any further debate after the Scouts' policymaking body upheld the ban.

On Thursday, however, he said recent events "have confronted us with urgent challenges I did not foresee and which we cannot ignore."

He cited the recent defiant announcement by the BSA's New York City chapter in early April that it had hired the nation's first openly gay Eagle Scout as a summer camp leader. He also cited broader developments related to gay rights.

"I remind you of the recent debates we have seen in places like Indiana and Arkansas over discrimination based on sexual orientation, not to mention the impending U.S. Supreme Court decision this summer on gay marriage," he said. "We must deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be."

Gates said the BSA technically had the power to revoke the charters of councils that defied the ban on gay adults, but said this would be harmful to boys in those regions.

He also noted that many states have passed laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, raising the possibility of extensive legal battles.

I'm all for it. I don't have a problem with that (allowing gay leaders). A pedophile is a pedophile. A female Scout leader could do the same thing."

"Thus, between internal challenges and potential legal conflicts, the BSA finds itself in an unsustainable position, a position that makes us vulnerable to the possibility the courts simply will order us at some point to change our membership policy," Gates said.

He expressed concern that an eventual court order might also strike down the BSA's policy of banning atheists.

"Waiting for the courts is a gamble with huge stakes," he said. "Alternatively, we can move at some future date -- but sooner rather than later -- to seize control of our own future, set our own course and change our policy in order to allow charter partners -- unit sponsoring organizations -- to determine the standards for their Scout leaders."

But some churches may be alienated nonetheless. Some Southern Baptist churches stopped sponsoring troops after gay scouts were allowed, and letting in gay adults will likely prompt even more departures, said Southern Evangelical Seminary President Richard Land, who formerly led the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

To him, Scouts shouldn't have leaders who are sexually attracted to their gender, whether a heterosexual man leading Girl Scouts or a gay man supervising boys, no matter objections that leaders of any sexuality shouldn't be assumed to be potential pedophiles.

"This seems to me to be sound judgment 101," he said, calling Gates' message a display of "political correctness."

In the Chattanooga area, residents sounded off on Gates' remarks.

"I'm all for it," said Kirk Sanford, a Chattanooga resident, Eagle Scout and former scout leader. He applauded Gates' pragmatism, but said he takes issue with the BSA's conflation of gays and pedophiles.

"I don't have a problem with that (allowing gay leaders)," Sanford said. "A pedophile is a pedophile. A female Scout leader could do the same thing."

On Facebook, Cleveland, Tenn., resident Josh Stephens called Gates' statements "silly and bigoted."

"To say 'it's not sustainable' as opposed to 'it's just not right' to keep gay leaders out still implies that they have a problem with an adult gay male being involved in Scouting," Stephens said.

Stephens said he also had a problem with Gates' suggestion to allow "charter partners -- unit-sponsoring organizations -- to determine the standards for their Scout leaders."

"They're passing the buck," he said.

Other residents opposed any potential ruling to allow gay Scout leaders.

Stephen Miller of Lookout Mountain, Ga., said, "As a former Scout and Scout leader, I do not support this decision. I'm glad my scouting days ended a few years ago."

Red Bank resident Deb Willis shared the Gates article on her Facebook page, as well as a post from a conservative New York-based journalist who called for families to pull their sons from Boy Scouts and join Trail Life USA, a Christian-based alternative.

Trail Life's chairman, John Stemberger, told The Associated Press his organization was "saddened" by Gates' speech.

"It is tragic that the BSA is willing to risk the safety and security of its boys because of peer pressure from activists groups," he said. "Trail Life USA remains committed to timeless Christian values."

Scout executives from Chattanooga's Cherokee Area Council, Knoxville's Great Smoky Mountain Council and Nashville's Middle Tennessee Council could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Until Thursday, there had been no indication how the BSA would respond to the New York Councils, which on April 2 announced the hiring of Pascal Tessier, an 18-year-old Eagle Scout. Tessier, currently finishing his freshman year of college, has been a vocal advocate of opening the 105-year-old organization to gay Scouts and leaders.

One of Tessier's lawyers, Josh Schiller, expressed hope that the BSA's ban would be lifted.

"People will join the Boy Scouts and look at them as an organization that has the principles of equality," he said.

Staff writer Will Healey contributed to this story.