DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Leadership of the Boy Scouts of America may take an important vote today. The organization's executive board is wrapping up a meeting in Dallas, and they're talking about whether to drop their policy banning gay leaders and gay scouts. Activists delivered petitions with more than 1.4 million signatures to the national headquarters this week calling for the Boy Scouts to open up the organization.
NPR's Kathy Lohr reports that the issue has ignited a passionate debate about what the 100-year-old group should do.
KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Some who are watching board's decision are directly affected by it, including Jennifer Tyrrell, a gay mom who was the leader of her son's Cub Scout den in Bridgeport, Ohio, near the West Virginia border. Then she got a call.
JENNIFER TYRELL: Back in April of 2012, I was forced to resign as my son's den leader - I was the tiger leader of Cub Scouts - because I'm gay.
LOHR: A couple of days later, Tyrell says she received a letter saying she didn't meet the moral standards for being a leader. She says the Boy Scouts policy is archaic, that it hurts adults and kids.
TYRELL: They're forced to either stay in the closet or fear coming out and being kicked out. On the other end of that, if you're a straight child, you're being sent the message that it's completely OK to discriminate against gay kids because they're different, and you should. There's just so many negative messages that this is sending to everybody.
LOHR: Tyrell says she wants to be reinstated as a leader. Many former scouts are also paying attention to this week's meeting. Jackson Cooper is a prosecutor in Louisville. He's among those who've sent back their Eagle Scout badges to protest the Boy Scout policy. Cooper says his mom - who died several years ago - was a den mother, and she was gay.
JACKSON COOPER: If that had been known about here when she was my, you know, assistant den mother back in first grade and second grade, that the idea that she could've been kicked out for that just really tore me up and made me want to cease my support for the Boy Scouts.
LOHR: Cooper says a proposal to allow chapters to make their own decisions is the right thing to do.
COOPER: In an ideal world, their policy would be we don't discriminate, period, end of sentence. But it's a positive step, and will open scouting to more people.
LOHR: The Boy Scouts has been losing membership, down from about 3.3 million scouts a decade ago to 2.7 million members today. The majority of troops are affiliated with religious organizations. A number of conservative groups, including the Florida Family Policy Council, strongly oppose opening up membership.
JOHN STEMBERGER: Well, I think it's an enormous mistake, and it could eventually erode the program to the point of destruction.
LOHR: John Stemberger is president of the Council and a former Eagle Scout. He's part of a group that ran a full-page ad in USA Today this week. It said changing the policy would be, quote, "a grave mistake."
STEMBERGER: It will certainly destroy the legitimacy and the security of scout program, and I predict it will eventually cause a mass exodus from the program.
LOHR: Stemberger says the group shouldn't bend to big sponsors who are pressuring the board. The Boy Scouts' Great Salt Lake Council, with more than half-a-million members, has asked the executive council to postpone any decision. And over the weekend, Texas Governor Rick Perry, who's also an Eagle Scout, said he sees no reason for the change.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: Scouting is about teaching substantial life lessons. Sexuality is not one of them. It never has been. It doesn't need to be.
LOHR: Even President Obama weighed in Sunday when he responded to a question about the Boy Scouts on CBS News.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS NEWS")
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My attitude is that gays and lesbians should have access and opportunity, the same way anybody else does in every institution and walk of life.
LOHR: In Dallas, outside the Boy Scouts' headquarters this week, protestors delivered boxes of petitions calling for an end to the ban. Brad Hankins with Scouts for Equality said several states and the military are extending more rights to gays, and he says this institution should, as well.
BRAD HANKINS: The Boy Scouts of America shouldn't be playing catch-up on this pressing issue. As we do in all other things, scouts should be blazing the trail.
LOHR: A spokesman for the Boy Scouts says the board is discussing the policy, but there's been no decision on whether members will vote on the issue today. Kathy Lohr, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.