In a secret ballot, more than 1,400 volunteer leaders from scouting’s 270 councils will accept or reject a proposal that has led to strident divisions and debate.
The emotions were evident Wednesday outside the conference center here in a suburb of Dallas, where dozens of conservative Christians, many in scout uniforms, carried “no” signs and waved American flags.
“We’re trying to uphold traditional values,” said Bill Lizzio, 58, a scout leader who had driven from Tennessee to register his concern.
Angry parents threatened to pull their sons out of scouting, saying they would never let them share a tent with a gay boy.
Current and former Boy Scouts who want to end the exclusionary policy, including several who were forced out of scouting for being gay, gave their own news briefing.
David Rice, 84, of Petaluma, Calif., who said he was ejected as a scout leader in 1998 after he publicly advocated including gays, said that if scouting did not change with the culture, “it will be left behind.”
“We cannot afford to lose this American icon,” he said.
Mythologized by Norman Rockwell and a formative experience for no fewer than 181 NASA astronauts, the Boy Scouts have for more than a century been a symbol of an upright America.
But over the last year, the growing public acceptance of homosexuality has collided with the social conservatism of many Boy Scout leaders and parents, as well as the churches that sponsor a majority of Cub Scout packs and Boy Scout troops. The longstanding policy of barring openly gay members — the Scouts’ version of “don’t ask, don’t tell” — has been sharply challenged from outside the organization and from within.
After publicly wavering, which only fueled the divisions, Boy Scout executives conducted exhaustive research this spring on member attitudes. They devised a plan that they hoped might defuse the debate, opening the door to gay youths but keeping it shut for gay adults, a step that, based on their surveys, they feared would cause mass defections.
But more conflict appears inevitable no matter which way the vote goes. Last week the Connecticut Yankee Council promised it would defy national policy in either case, saying it intended to accept gay leaders and would be “open to all youths and adults who subscribe to the values of the Scout Oath and Law regardless of their personal sexual orientation.”
The vote Thursday is expected to be close. Prospects for passage improved when the Mormon Church, the largest single sponsor of scout units, indicated support for limited change, and the Roman Catholic Church, another major sponsor, also said that it would not abandon scouting so long as any new policy applied to youths and not leaders.
Glaad, formerly known as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and other rights groups as well as internal advocates said that allowing openly gay youths would be a step in the right direction, but only that. They vowed to continue with a public campaign against any discrimination.
Evangelical conservatives, the public spearhead of opposition, said that even the limited opening being voted on would expose youths to immoral behavior and pro-gay politics, ruining a rare bastion of traditional America.
“Allowing openly gay scouts will mean the blunt injection of hypersexuality and gay activism into a youth organization,” said John Stemberger, head of the Florida Family Policy Council, a conservative evangelical group. Mr. Stemberger, an Eagle Scout who has crusaded against gay marriage and abortion, has sought to mobilize like-minded former scouts with a group called OnMyHonor.Net.
Zach Wahls, a 21-year-old Eagle Scout who was raised by two mothers and who took this year off college to organize Scouts for Equality, called Mr. Stemberger’s fears absurd. “Being open doesn’t mean waving a rainbow flag or advancing some agenda,” he said. “It means that two gay parents can feel comfortable going to their son’s Eagle Scout Court of Honor.”
Those on both sides predict that once gay scouts are allowed, the Scouts will soon be forced to allow gay leaders, too, whether by lawsuits or the simple lack of logic in forcing a gay Eagle Scout to quit the day he turns 18.
The Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Venture Scouts and other branches include more than 2.6 million youths — down by some 40 percent since the early 1970s. They are guided by about one million adult volunteers, including parents and many former scouts.
Arguments over the exclusion of gays have simmered for years, and some municipal agencies, charities and corporations have ended donations because of it. The issue erupted with force last year after a lesbian in Ohio, Jennifer Tyrrell, was ousted as leader of her 7-year-old son’s Tiger Cubs den.
Malia Wollan contributed reporting from San Francisco.