William B. Plowman/NBC/Getty
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May 22, 2015 02:00 PM

Robert Gates, the president of the Boy Scouts of America, called for an end to the group’s ban on gay adult leaders in a meeting Thursday and announced he would no longer enforce the policy.

“The status quo in our movement’s membership cannot be sustained,” the former defense secretary said in a speech at the organization’s annual national meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. “We must deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be. We must all understand that this will probably happen sooner rather than later.”

While Gates did not move to officially change the Boy Scouts’ policy, he said he would not revoke the charters of troops that accept gay adults.

“While technically we have the authority to revoke their charters, such an action would deny the lifelong benefits of Scouting to hundreds of thousands of boys and young men today and vastly more in the future,” he said. “I will not take that path.”

Gates, who was defense secretary when a federal judge overturned the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in 2010, argued that waiting for the courts to rule on the Boy Scouts’ ban on gay leaders would be a “gamble with huge stakes.”

“We could end up with a broad ruling that could forbid any kind of membership standard, including our foundational belief in our duty to God and our focus on serving the specific needs of the boys,” he said, adding that it would be better to “seize control of our own future.”

Scouts for Equality, a group that has campaigned for an end to the ban, praised Gates’ speech, calling it “another step forward for the Boy Scouts of America.”

“While our work won’t be done until we see a full end to their ban on gay adults once and for all, today’s decision moves the Boy Scouts in that direction,” the organization’s executive director, Zach Wahls, said in a press release.

Religious conservatives criticized the move, however, reports The New York Times. “I think it’s a sad thing. I think that many families and boys will be negatively affected by the Boy Scouts’ departure from their longstanding principles,” said John Stemberger, president of the conservative Christian group Florida Family Policy Council.

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Gates, an Eagle Scout, also supported the Boy Scouts’ 2013 decision to admit openly gay youths when he took over as president last year, according to The New York Times.

Now, he says, another change must come.

“I support a policy that accepts and respects our different perspectives and beliefs,” he said. “I truly fear that any other alternative will be the end of us as a national movement.”

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