The president of the Boy Scouts of America on Thursday urged the organization to reconsider its blanket ban on gay leaders, suggesting that the organization must keep up with the times on the issue or face “the end of us as a national movement.”

During remarks at the group’s National Annual Meeting in Atlanta on Thursday, Robert M. Gates, the former defense secretary who was elected president of the organization last year, warned that the longstanding policy could provoke legal challenges and suggested proactive action to allow sponsors to change the policy if they so choose.

“We must deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be,” he said, according to prepared remarks posted on the Boy Scouts’s Web site. “The status quo in our movement’s membership standards cannot be sustained.”

Gates’s remarks come two years after the century-old organization voted to lift the ban on gay youths, a controversial decision that upset some of the religious groups that represent 70 percent of the local sponsors of the organization.

The remarks also come as pressure is mounting on the group from advocates but also state governments and members. In April, the Greater New York Area Councils of the Boy Scouts of America hired an openly gay leader for a camp this summer, in defiance of the national group’s policy. In January, the California Supreme Court ordered judges to cut ties with the Scouts over the policy. And last fall, the Denver council came under fire for rescinding a job offer after learning that the candidate was lesbian.

Gates referenced some of these incidents, as well as recent eruptions over laws viewed as discriminatory in Indiana and Arkansas, as evidence that the organization should move quickly to adjust the rule. He said the organization’s decision-making bodies were examining their policies and that in the meantime councils that flout the ban would not be penalized.

He suggested a compromise that allows the decision of whether to allow gay leaders to be made at the local level. That would give groups such as New York the right to hire a gay camp leader, while also protecting troops sponsored by the Catholic and Mormon churches from having to do the same.

“The one thing we cannot do is put our heads in the sand and pretend this challenge will go away or abate,” he said, according to prepared remarks posted on the Scouts’ Web site. “Quite the opposite is happening.”

Gates’s remarks drew immediate praise from gay rights groups, which urged the organization to take heed of his warning.

“We welcome as a step in the right direction President Gates’ announcement that the organization will not revoke the charters of chapters that welcome LGBT Scout leaders and employees,” Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. “But, as we have said many times previously, half measures are unacceptable, especially at one of America’s most storied institutions.”

Scouts for Equality, a group of former Boy Scouts in favor of such a change, also praised the decision. “This is another step forward for the Boy Scouts of America,” Zach Wahls, executive director of the group, said in a statement.

Gates’s address also comes as public opinion on sexual orientation has dramatically transformed. A new poll from Gallup, released Wednesday, showed that a majority of Americans (51 percent) say that people who are gay or lesbian are born that way; a day earlier, Gallup also reported that six in 10 Americans support same-sex marriage.