Any change would still give local scouting groups final say on who can belong and lead, according to the statement.
"The Boy Scouts would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members or parents. Under this proposed policy, the BSA would not require any chartered organization to act in ways inconsistent with that organization's mission, principles or religious beliefs," the statement said.
The Boys Scouts, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2010, has long excluded both gays and atheists. Smith said that a change in the policy toward atheists was not being considered, and that the BSA continued to view "duty to God" as one of its basic principles.
Protests over the no-gays policy gained momentum in 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the BSA's right to exclude gays. Scout units lost sponsorships by public schools and other entities that adhered to nondiscrimination policies.
More recently, amid petition campaigns, shipping giant UPS Inc. and drug-manufacturer Merck announced that they were halting donations to the Boy Scouts from their charitable foundations so long as the no-gays policy was in force.
Philadelphia played a central role in the debate. In 2008, the Boy Scouts' Cradle of Liberty Council, which serves Philadelphia, Montgomery and Delaware Counties, sued the City of Philadelphia after it threatened to evict the scouts from the landmark, city-owned building off the Benjamin Franklin Parkway that they have occupied since 1928.
The city maintained that an organization discriminating against any group could not receive municipal benefits.
Though Cradle of Liberty had a nondiscrimination policy, the national organization threatened to dissolve the Philadelphia group if it allowed "avowed homosexuals."
In 2010, the suit went to trial. The jury sided with Cradle of Liberty and required the city to pay $877,000 of the council's legal fees, an amount that has since risen to more than $1 million as the case has continued. Philadelphia proposed selling the building to the council for $500,000, about half its assessed value, as payment for bills, but that deal fell through, and the city is appealing.
"We're watching what happens at the national scout level like everyone else," said Mark McDonald, a spokesman for Mayor Nutter. "And we'll watch it very closely." A representative for the Cradle of Liberty Council declined comment.
Many associated with area scouting applauded the news but wanted to know more.
Thomas Ferrari, an Eagle Scout who returned his medal and badge to protest the national organization's policy, said he was encouraged.
"I believe it's a step in the right direction," said Ferrari, 30, who is an assistant scoutmaster for Troop 48 in Berlin, Camden County. "I still strongly believe in the program."
He said he hopes the Boy Scouts will go further than giving local councils and troops an option.
"I think eventually - hopefully sooner rather than later - it won't even be an option, and just anyone is accepted," he said.
Ferrari is among more than 200 Eagle Scouts who have renounced their award on a website called Eagle Scouts Returning Their Badges ( http://eaglebadges.tumblr.com/) in the last year.
He said he would wait to see what the Boy Scouts do before considering requesting the return of his award.
Troy Stevenson, chief executive of Garden State Equality, a gay rights organization, said a possible change in policy by the scouts was "amazing news."
"We would applaud the Boy Scouts for finally being inclusive" if the organization approves the change, he said.
Lisa Baskin, committee chair for Cub Scout Pack 581 in Penn Valley, said her group has always accepted everyone.
"As far as I know, we have never turned down anybody, nor would we ever. That's the way we feel locally," she said. "We don't ask."
The national policy has driven some people away, she said.
"We would love that [change] because I know that there is one or two Cub Scouts who recently dropped out - not in our pack, but in one of the other packs - because the parents felt very strongly about the ban."
Tom Dintaman, assistant scout executive for the BSA's Chester County Council, said the national policy might not alter local decisions, which are made by the churches, community organizations and others that partner with the scouts to create troops.
"We have partners who are strongly against the Boy Scouts' current stand, and we have partners that are strongly in favor of the Boy Scouts maintaining their current policies," Dintaman said. "There is nothing that our national council can do that will please everyone."
Contact Staff Writer Miriam Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-854-5520. Follow her on Twitter @miriamhill.
Staff writers Carolyn Davis and Joseph Gambardello contributed to this article, which also contains information from the Associated Press.