Robert M. Gates, the president of the Boy Scouts of America, urged the organization to reconsider its ban on gay leaders in a speech in Atlanta at the Scouts’ national annual meeting. (Boy Scouts of America via YouTube)

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

Robert M. Gates, the former defense secretary who was elected president of the Scouts last year, warned attendees of a national annual meeting in Atlanta that the long-standing ban on gay Scout leaders will inevitably provoke legal challenges unless it is changed. He suggested steps to avert what could be an existential threat to the storied organization.

“We must deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it would be,” said Gates, who oversaw the end of the military’s ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly while he was at the Pentagon. “The status quo in our movement’s membership standards cannot be sustained.”

Gates’s remarks come at a pivotal time for the century-old organization, which did away with its ban on membership for openly gay youths two years ago and has come under increasing pressure to change its policy toward gay adults. Gay rights advocates said they viewed Gates’s comments as a strong signal that the Boy Scouts would adjust its policy soon, perhaps within the year.

The Scouts have held fast to the ban over the years, even as homosexuality and same-sex marriage have increasingly come to be accepted by the broader American public. The policy has remained in place in part because of the strong influence of traditional faith communities on Scouting. About 70 percent of Boy Scouts belong to faith-based, including those connected with the Mormon and Catholic churches, whose doctrines ban gay relationships.

Still, Gates’s statement amounts to an acknowledgment that even powerful and revered institutions such as the Boy Scouts can no longer isolate themselves from the shifting cultural winds on gay rights.

In another sign of changing times, a federal judge on Thursday ordered officials in Alabama to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Gay nuptials were to have begun there earlier this year but were halted by the state’s conservative Supreme Court. Next month, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide whether the Constitution guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry.

Some more conservative religious groups reacted cautiously to Gates’s remarks. Officials at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also referred to as the Mormon Church, said in a statement on the church’s Web site that they will monitor discussion of the Boy Scouts’ policy and “examine any such changes very carefully to assess how they might impact our own century-long association with” the Scouts.

Officials with the National Catholic Committee on Scouting said Thursday evening they were not yet ready to make a statement.

In his speech, Gates suggested a change in policy aimed at satisfying the faction within the Scouts that would like to see the gay ban lifted, while protecting the right of religious groups to reject gay leaders. His proposed compromise would allow individual sponsoring organizations to decide the policy for their own troops.

The Boy Scouts had been facing the possibility of multiple legal challenges throughout the country involving gay leaders who had been fired or denied a role because of their sexual orientation, according to attorneys and advocates.

In New York, Pascal Tessier, an openly gay Eagle Scout who had been hired by the state chapter in open defiance of the national policy, has retained Boies, Schiller & Flexner to represent him if he is dismissed because of his sexual orientation. The powerful New York law firm was involved in the successful challenge of California’s same-sex marriage ban and had taken Tessier’s case pro bono.

The firm has also filed a complaint against the Denver Boy Scouts on behalf of a woman whose job offer with the organization was rescinded last year after she disclosed she was gay. And lawyers have been in touch with others in Ohio, Oklahoma and elsewhere, said Josh Schiller, a partner in the firm.

The Scouts’ policy has withstood legal challenges. But a recent proliferation of state and local laws explicitly banning discrimination against gays would bolster the legal case against the organization now, Schiller said. Gates acknowledged as much in his speech Thursday.

“We’re very hopeful that the result of Robert Gates’s statement today means that the Boy Scouts are truly looking forward and not backward and that a positive resolution will result for everybody,” Schiller said.

The objections to the policy have come not only from outside the Scouts but from within the organization. Nationally, more than a dozen regional councils have adopted some sort of nondiscrimination policy aimed at protecting gays in Scouting, said Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout and executive director of Scouts for Equality, a group founded to promote gay rights within the Boy Scouts.

The fact that the Scouts appear to be moving forward on lifting the ban suggests that they are worried about “a full-scale rebellion” if they don’t act, Wahls said. “They’ve realized this isn’t a fight they want to have in 2015.”

In his remarks Thursday, Gates said for the first time that the national organization would not take action against local councils that have defied the national policy by hiring gay leaders. And he warned those gathered that, while he was suggesting no immediate change to Boy Scout policy, he felt compelled to speak “plainly and bluntly” about the serious challenges he sees ahead if the organization does not evolve.

“The one thing we cannot do is put our heads in the sand and pretend this challenge will go away or abate,” Gates said. “Quite the opposite is happening.”

Mark Berman, Michelle Boorstein and Robert McCartney contributed to this report.