Tim Sharp / Reuters

On Thursday, Boy Scouts of America President Bob Gates called for the end to the organization’s ban on gay adults who serve as troop leaders or have other roles within the organization. Addressing the group’s National Annual Business Meeting, he said:

I am not asking the national board for any action to change our current policy at this meeting. But I must speak as plainly and bluntly to you as I spoke to president when I was director of CIA and secretary of defense. We must deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be. The status quo in our movement’s membership standards cannot be sustained.

What This Means for the Boy Scouts

In addition to calling for an end to the ban, Gates added that he would not seek to revoke the charters of Boy Scouts chapters that allow gay adults to serve in defiance of the existing ban. He specifically mentioned two chapters, one in New York and the other in Colorado, that hired gay scoutmasters or volunteers. (Just last year, a chapter in Seattle had its charter revoked for refusing to fire a gay scoutmaster.)

He also warned that “any other alternative will be the end of us as a national movement.” Should the Boy Scouts of America embrace his statement, a resolution to change the policy will likely materialize when the group’s governing body meets next.

A Brief Timeline of the Gay-Rights Movement Within the Boy Scouts

Gates’s statement is the latest in a progressive push by the Boy Scouts. In May of 2013, Boy Scout leaders voted to end its ban on gay youths with nearly two-thirds supporting a measure that said membership could not be denied “on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone.”

Despite the flurry of recent activity, Zach Wahls of Scouts for Equality told me that the movement to permit gay youths and gay adults began in earnest in the 1970s. One particular turning point was a Supreme Court decision in 2000 that reaffirmed the group’s constitutional right to ban gay members.

That decision cost the organization some of its more politically neutral local sponsors upon which the group relies. “When the Scouts won their Supreme Court case, all the public schools walked away,” Wahls said.

He noted that 70 percent of the local nonprofit groups that the Boy Scouts work with are frequently churches. The Girl Scouts, which rely less on local institutions for support, have long allowed gay and lesbian scouts and leaders. The Girl Scouts set a national culture while the Boy Scouts have autonomy on the local level.

That dynamic has made the division over gay scouts and gay leaders particularly contentious over the years. As Erik Eckholm notes, “Conservative religious groups that sponsor many Scout troops, including the Mormon Church and the Roman Catholic Church, have opposed the participation of openly gay members while local leaders in more liberal areas have called for an end to the ban.”

What Gates’s statement ultimately does is call for the end of a national ban at the national level. While local chapters may go their own way, they may find themselves on the opposite side of a groundswell.

“What we’re seeing is the beginning of the end,” Wahls added.

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