The Boy Scouts of America may start accepting gay leaders.
The national organization has signaled its readiness to end the nationwide exclusion of gays as scouts or leaders and give sponsors of local troops the freedom to decide the matter for themselves.
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.
"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, which was outlined Monday by the Scouts, 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 Southern Baptist churches to support other boys' organizations instead of the BSA. The Southern Baptists are among the largest sponsors of Scout units, along with the Roman Catholic, Mormon and United Methodist churches.
BSA spokesman Deron Smith said "the Boy Scouts would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members, or parents."
“BSA members and parents would be able to choose a local unit which best meets the needs of their families,” the BSA told Fox News Latino in a statement.
The Irving, Texas-based 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 U.S. Supreme Court upheld the BSA's right to exclude gays. Scout units lost sponsorships by public schools and other entities that adhered to nondiscrimination policies, and several local Scout councils made public their displeasure with the policy.
Local Scout officials drew widespread criticism last year for ousting Jennifer Tyrrell, a lesbian mom, as a den leader of her son's Cub Scout pack in Ohio and for refusing to approve an Eagle Scout application by Ryan Andresen, a California teen who came out as gay last fall.
Tyrrell said she was thrilled for parents and their children who've been excluded from scouting and "for those who are in Scouts and hiding who they are."
"The Boy Scouts of America have heard from Scouts, corporations and millions of Americans that discriminating against gay scouts and scout leaders is wrong," said Herndon Graddick, GLAAD's president. "Scouting is a valuable institution, and this change will only strengthen its core principles of fairness and respect."
The announcement came shortly after new data showed that membership in the Cub Scouts – the BSA's biggest division – dropped sharply last year and was down nearly 30 percent over the past 14 years.
According to figures provided by the organization, Cub Scout ranks dwindled by 3.4 percent, from 1,583,166 in 2011 to 1,528,673 in 2012. That's down from 2.17 million in 1998.
The BSA's overall "traditional youth membership" – Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Venturers – totaled 2,658,794 in 2012, compared to more than 4 million in peak years of the past.
The Boy Scouts attribute the decline largely to broad social changes, including the allure of video games and the proliferation of youth sports leagues and other options for after-school activities.
However, critics of the Scouts suggest that its recruitment efforts have been hampered by high-profile controversies -- notably the court-ordered release of files dealing with sex abuse allegations and persistent protests over the no-gays policy.
Through various cases, the Scouts have been forced to reveal files dating from the 1960s to 1991. They detailed numerous cases where abuse claims were made and Boy Scout officials never alerted authorities and sometimes actively sought to protect the accused.
The BSA has apologized for past lapses and cover-ups and has stressed the steps taken to improve youth protection policy. Since 2010, for example, it has mandated that any suspected abuse be reported to police.
The Boy Scouts have also been unable to capture Latino participation on the scale that they would have liked to.
Despite initiatives to reach the Hispanic communities, going as far back as 1990 and the most recent being in 2009, the Boy Scouts only have 100,000 Latino members.
The Boy Scouts have not responded yet to Fox News Latino’s inquiry as to what other plans they have to capture Latino members.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.