Senior Regional Correspondent

At age 14, while backpacking up a New Mexico mountain at the Philmont national Boy Scout ranch, I remember having a lively argument with our adult leader over whether the Scouts should admit atheists.

Opinionated and presumptuous even then, I said it was un-American to exclude people on the basis of faith. What about the First Amendment?

The grown-up, a grandfatherly volunteer, said that a private organization like the Scouts had the right to require some religious belief as a condition for membership. So far, the Supreme Court agrees with him.

Early lesson: The promise of equality in U.S. society has limits.

Now a similar dispute is reaching a turning point over the Boy Scouts’ prohibition on admitting gays as members or adult leaders. The Scouts’ national executive board is expected to vote Wednesday on relaxing the ban.

The outcome isn’t certain, but it seems likely that the Scouts will empower sponsoring organizations like churches to allow individual Boy Scout troops and Cub Scout dens to admit gays if they choose.

The change would mark a major advance — albeit tardy and incomplete — for tolerance and inclusiveness. It would also be a welcome setback for a 30-year trend in which the Boy Scouts have fallen under excessive influence of conservative supporters and donors, especially in the Mormon and Roman Catholic churches.

Unlike the Girl Scouts, which have explicitly barred discrimination against gays since 1992, the Boy Scouts have been one of the country’s most prominent organizations to officially shun them.

Of course, plenty of gays have been Boy Scouts all along. They just couldn’t say so. That put them at odds with the first tenet of the 12-point Scout Law: “A Scout is trustworthy.”

A switch to openness also would remind us of the effectiveness of the very American tradition of grass-roots activism on behalf of a worthy cause.

Scouts for Equality, founded by Eagle Scout Zach Wahls, 21, of Iowa City, has delivered more than 1.4 million signatures on petitions urging acceptance of gays. That group and others successfully pressured major corporate funders such as Intel and UPS to drop support of Scouts unless it changed its policy.

“Our sense was that a lot of local leaders saw what was happening and said, ‘This is out of step with my values,’ ” Wahls said. “As President Obama made clear in his Second Inaugural, [gay] rights are civil rights.”

The Boy Scouts began shifting toward the religious right in the 1980s partly because of the role of Mormons and Catholics. Those two churches rank first and third, respectively, among chartering organizations in numbers of Scout units and boys sponsored. (The Methodists, who tend to be more liberal, are second.)

It wasn’t always that way. When I was in Scouts in the 1960s, the Boy Scouts endorsed religion, sure, but their approach was light-handed and ecumenical. I’m a Protestant, but my best friend in my Chevy Chase troop was Jewish. When I lived for a time in a Chicago suburb, our troop had many Christian Scientists.

Jay Mechling, a retired American studies professor at University of California-Davis, who has written a book and other scholarly works on Boy Scouts, said the Scouts originally subscribed to what he called “America’s civil religion, a mashup of generic Protestantism and Enlightenment liberalism.”

That changed when the culture wars sharpened in the 1980s.

The Boy Scouts of America “chose to side with the conservative, orthodox side,” Mechling said. It became “the youth movement of two large churches, which has been turning the BSA into a religious organization — something never intended by the founders and certainly not justified by the history of the BSA,” he said.

Under the proposed new approach, conservative churches and civic organizations could continue to bar gays in units they charter. Liberal churches and groups would throw open the closet door.

One drawback is that the Boy Scouts would become self-consciously divided between pro-gay and anti-gay troops. Would a conservative-sponsored unit be allowed to attend multi-troop Jamborees if the next tent over might shelter a (shudder) homosexual?

In that sense, the BSA will reflect and reinforce the same division and insularity that afflict the rest of the country. Consciously or otherwise, troops will be labeled red and blue, like states on an election map.

Eventually, I hope the Boy Scouts will catch up with the Girl Scouts and adopt a national policy of welcoming everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or religious adherence.

Today, the gays, tomorrow, the atheists. Scouting, and America, march on.

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