The US Scout movement is signalling its readiness to end a ban on gay members and leaders after a wave of protest.
If approved by the Scouts' national executive board, possibly as soon as next week, the change would be another momentous milestone for America's gay-rights movement, following a surge of support for same-sex marriage and the ending of the ban on gays serving opening in military.
"The pulse of equality is strong in America, and today it beats a bit faster with news that the Boy Scouts may finally put an end to its long history of discrimination," said Chad Griffin of the Human Rights Campaign, a major gay-rights group.
Under the proposed change the different religious and civic groups that sponsor Scout units would be able to decide for themselves how to address the issue - either maintaining an exclusion of gays, as is now required of all units, or opening up their membership.
Southern Baptist leaders - who consider homosexuality a sin - were furious about the possible change and said its approval might encourage churches to support other boys' organizations instead. The Southern Baptists are among the largest sponsors of Scout units, along with the Roman Catholic, Mormon and United Methodist churches.
The BSA, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2010, has long excluded both gays and atheists. Smith said that a change in the policy toward atheists was not being considered and that the BSA continued to view "Duty to God" as one of its basic principles.
Protests over the no-gays policy gained momentum in 2000, when the US Supreme Court upheld the BSA's right to exclude gays. Scout units lost sponsorships by public schools and other entities that adhered to non-discrimination policies, and several local Scout councils made public their displeasure with the policy.
More recently, pressure surfaced on the Scouts' own national executive board. Two high-powered members - Ernst & Young chief executive James Turley and AT&T boss Randall Stephenson - indicated they would try to work from within to change the membership policy, which stood in contrast to their own companies' non-discrimination policies.
Amid petition campaigns by Change.org, shipping giant UPS and drug-manufacturer Merck announced that they were halting donations from their charitable foundations to the Boy Scouts as long as the no-gays policy was in force.
The Scouts had reaffirmed the no-gays policy as recently as last year and appeared to have strong backing from the conservative religious denominations that sponsor large numbers of Scout units. Under the proposed change, they could continue excluding gays.