Seeking an elusive middle ground on an issue that has divided its ranks and drawn heated national debate, the Boy Scouts of America on Friday proposed ending its longstanding ban on openly gay scouts but continuing to bar gay adults from serving as leaders. The decision must be approved by the roughly 1,400 voting members of the Scouts’ National Council at a meeting in Texas the week of May 20.
‘‘No youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone,’’ the proposed policy states. But the organization ‘‘will maintain the current membership policy for all adult leaders.’’
The proposal drew swift criticism from both sides as conservative Christians said the Boy Scouts had caved in to political pressure and gay rights groups said they were perpetuating dangerous stereotypes about gay men and discrimination.
The issue of gay members and leaders has particularly tormented the Boy Scouts over the last year as the organization first said it would not change policy, then said it would, then put off a decision until this May’s council meeting.
The dismissal of a lesbian Cub Scout den leader had received wide publicity, and gay rights groups stepped up a campaign for change. Several local governments and charities said they could not donate to the Scouts or sponsor troops because of its discrimination against gay people.
On the other side, conservative politicians and religious groups urged the Boy Scouts to continue with the longstanding policy of ejecting openly gay boys and leaders.
The Boy Scouts were forced to confront the question of sexual preference at a time when the public has become more accepting of homosexuality, but the issue remains deeply polarizing. Already suffering a long-term decline in membership, the organization had to move carefully, its leaders said in private, because most of its local troops were sponsored by churches, some of which call homosexual behavior a sin.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the Roman Catholic Church, together, sponsor groups enrolling about one-fourth of all Scouts. Both churches have in the past said they might abandon the Boy Scouts if the group altered its policy on gay members and leaders.
The Mormon church, which uses the Boy Scouts as a main program for youth training, was noncommittal Friday, saying only that it would study the proposed resolution before the May meeting.
Deron Smith, a spokesman for the Scouts, declined to describe their discussions with church leaders.
“We have more than 116,000 local scouting units, and reactions will no doubt vary,’’ he said. ‘‘We value our relationship with all of them.’’
In recent months, the Boy Scouts have conducted discussions and surveys on the issue around the country, with results that mirrored the country’s changes and divisions over gay rights. They found that while a majority of adults involved with scouting supported the past policy of excluding gays, parents under the age of 50 and a majority of teenagers opposed it, according to a summary of the findings released Friday.
While Smith declined to explain the reasoning behind the different treatment of leaders and youths, the study summary said that many adults had expressed particular concern about child safety and whether gay men were appropriate role models. The Scouts, like other institutions serving children, have been jarred in recent years by sex-abuse scandals from the past.
But four experts consulted by the Scouts said that homosexuality is not a risk factor for sexual abuse, the summary said, and that there was no evidence that having a gay leader would alter a child’s sexual orientation.
On Friday, a conservative Christian coalition of past and current Boy Scouts, parents, and leaders called OnMyHonor.net, which was formed to lobby the Boy Scouts on the issue, condemned the proposed partial changes with a statement titled ‘‘Boy Scouts resolution caves to outside pressure.’’
But gay rights advocates attacked the Scouts for failing to open up their leadership ranks.
“The Boy Scouts have missed an opportunity to exercise leadership and usher the organization back to relevancy,’’ said Richard Ferraro, the vice president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination. ‘‘What this resolution appears to be doing is reinforcing the outrageous idea that gay people somehow pose a threat to kids, which experts like the American Psychological Association have dismissed for more than a decade.’’
Jennifer Tyrrell, a lesbian parent in Ohio whose dismissal last year as her 7-year-old son’s den leader received national publicity, said in a statement Friday: ‘‘One year after sending a letter ousting me as my son’s leader, the Boy Scouts are once again forcing me to look my children in the eyes and tell them that our family isn’t good enough.’’
But Martez Moore, chief operating officer of the Scouts’ Middle Tennessee Council, said he supported the proposal, especially the continued barring of gay leaders. In surveys, he said, local parents were ‘‘overwhelmingly in support of banning gay Scout leaders.’’