NEW YORK (AFP) - The Boy Scouts of America, a youth group long seen as symbolising traditional US values, announced on Wednesday it was delaying a decision on the contentious issue of whether to allow gays to join.
The Scouts had ruled last year to maintain the ban on openly gay boys and adult leaders. Amid political pressure and rapidly shifting social attitudes, the Scouts' leadership said it would meet on the issue - leading to speculation that a U-turn was in store.
However, the executive board issued a statement afterwards, saying that "after careful consideration and extensive dialogue within the Scouting family, along with comments from those outside the organisation..., (it) concluded that due to the complexity of this issue, the organisation needs time."
"The approximately 1,400 voting members of the National Council will take action on the resolution at the National Annual Meeting in May 2013," the statement said. The 103-year-old institution, famed for its outdoor training programmes and preaching of simple virtues, has close links to the country's conservative and religious heartlands.
However, the group, which is separate from the Girl Scouts of the USA and counts 2.6 million boys in its membership, is increasingly unsure of its position in wider society.
President Barack Obama said on Sunday in an interview aired right before the Super Bowl that "nobody should be barred" from the Scouts.
On Wednesday, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a prominent backer of same-sex marriage, added his voice to the debate.
"Discrimination against gays in the Boy Scouts, I think, is wrong and I think they'd be well advised to eliminate it," he told reporters.
With New York among the growing number of US states allowing gay marriage, and Mr Obama ending the ban on gays serving openly in the military, the Scouts appear to find themselves increasingly behind the times.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday found that voters across the country are 55 per cent in favour of an end to the Scouts' ban, with only 33 per cent against.
There was a notable gender gap in the poll, with 61 to 27 per cent of women in favor of ending the ban, but men split 49 to 39 per cent.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2000 in favour of the Boy Scouts, saying that the prohibition against openly homosexual members was part of its right as a private organisation to free association and that it could not be forced to adopt an unwanted message.
In his interview, Mr Obama called the Scouts a "great institution that are promoting young people and exposing them to opportunities and leadership that will serve people for the rest of their lives." However, he added: "My attitude is that gays and lesbians should have access and opportunity the same way everybody else does in every institution and walk of life."