GRAPEVINE, Texas (AP) — As protesters made one last stand, the Boy Scouts of America's leadership began a conference Wednesday that was expected to culminate in a long-anticipated vote on whether to allow openly gay Scouts — a decision that, either way, could deeply affect the organization's membership and funding.
Scouting leaders from around the country gathered at a resort in Grapevine, Texas, near the youth organization's suburban Dallas headquarters, for their annual national meeting. The three-day meeting is being closely watched because Scout officials have scheduled a vote Thursday on a resolution that would not allow youth Scouts to be excluded based only on sexual orientation. The ban on gay adult leaders would remain in place.
Conservatives and some religious groups have opposed the plan, which is backed by gay-rights supporters. National groups on both sides have organized protests and campaigns to woo the approximately 1,400 members of the national council who will cast ballots.
On the eve of the vote, BSA President Wayne Perry called for voters to approve the resolution. He wrote an opinion piece for USA Today saying a change is "the right decision for Boy Scouts."
"Parents, adults in the Scouting community and teens alike tend to agree that youth should not be denied the benefits of Scouting," he said in the piece, published online Wednesday. "The resolution is not about adults; it is about what is best for young people."
The meeting is closed to the public, with staffers and security watching for protesters and the media. About two dozen people holding up signs saying "NO on the resolution" stood on the sidewalk Wednesday outside the entrance. Meanwhile, supporters of the change gathered at a resort across the street, holding a meeting they dubbed the "Equal Scouting Summit."
Speaking on both sides were current and former Eagle Scouts who had worked years to achieve Scouting's highest rank. They recited parts of the Scout Oath and the 12-point Scout Law — from "trustworthy" to "reverent" — to make their separate cases.
Dave McGrath and one of his six sons, Joe, rode their bicycles from Idaho to Texas to support Scouts for Equality, which has organized rallies in several cities. McGrath, 48, said he had two children and a brother who are gay and that he considered the current exclusion policy a "taint" on his Eagle Scout honor.
"So a Scout is trustworthy, unless you're gay," McGrath said. "That isn't the way I was raised."
Meanwhile, John Wade, a former Eagle from Tennessee who now is a minister, called the possible change an extreme departure from what he described as Scouting's roots in biblical values.
"I think that it really presents a danger as well as a conflict of interest to what BSA was originally started as," said Wade, 26.
The debate is deeply emotional for many people on both sides, who talked about their experiences in Scouting and their worry about what would happen next.
Bill Lizzio of Johnson City, Tenn., who is Wade's former scoutmaster, was holding one end of a banner opposing the change and waving at cars driving into the resort. Asked about the harm of allowing gays, he talked about his concern with sexual attraction between Scouts, saying that he wouldn't let a boy and a girl sleep in the same tent at camp.
"And so how do we keep people apart that might have an attraction and don't openly state that to the adult leadership?" Lizzio said. "Or the ones that do, now do we segregate a gay Scout and put him in a tent by himself?
"That sends a terrible message. It doesn't work."
But Mark Noel described a different situation from when he was a scoutmaster in New Hampshire. A group of Scouts came to him and asked what he would do if one of them was gay. The Scouts didn't know Noel himself was gay.
"What could I tell them? That I'm an ally, it's OK? I'm with you?" Noel said Wednesday, his voice wavering. "There's no way for me to even signal them that it's OK, that I am not going to be conditional about applying the Scout Oath and Law."
"I am loyal, period. Friendly, period. Courteous, period," he said.
Thursday's expected vote brings an end to a fight that has resembled a political campaign.
Opponents of a change sent mailings to voting members, after fighting to get the names and addresses voters from BSA, by citing a Texas requirement that allowed any voting member to see the full list, said John Stemberger, organizer of OnMyHonor.net. They also scheduled 40 rallies across the country on the same day last week.
Supporters of allowing gay Scouts used a political consulting firm and targeted about 120 local Scouting councils that they thought were the most competitive — the "swing districts" where they thought votes could be won. Zach Wahls, founder of Scouts for Equality, said earlier this week that they believed to have about 300 "yes" votes confirmed through public announcements and internal conversations, with perhaps 100 or so leaning yes.
"We've done everything that we can," Wahls said. "We feel like we are very prepared for any outcome."
No one will know for sure, however, until BSA announces the results Thursday evening.
On the Web: BSA Membership Standards Resolution: http://bit.ly/185yyXk
Associated Press National Writer David Crary in New York contributed to this report.
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