Boy Scout leaders and parents in southern Maine praised Robert M. Gates, the president of Boy Scouts of America, for taking a stance Thursday on ending the Scouts’ ban on gay adult leaders, saying the policy shift has had unofficial support in the state for several years.

Gates, the former defense secretary and CIA director, told attendees at the Boy Scouts’ annual national meeting in Atlanta that the ban on gay adults is no longer sustainable.

“We must deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be,” Gates said.

He pointed out that worldviews on sexual orientation have changed and that many states have passed laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. Retaining the membership ban leaves the Scouts vulnerable to a lawsuit, he said.

In 2013, the Scouts decided to allow openly gay youth as scouts, but not gay adults as leaders.

Gates told the meeting that changes should be made sooner rather than later. He cited the “defiant” announcement by the Scouts’ New York chapter in April that it had hired Pascal Tessier, the nation’s first openly gay Eagle Scout, as a summer camp leader. Tessier, an 18-year-old college freshman, has been a vocal advocate of opening the 105-year-old organization to gay scouts and leaders.

Maine’s largest Boy Scout organization – the Pine Tree Council – adopted guidelines three years ago that sought to address the issue. Eric Tarbox, Pine Tree’s scout executive, said the policy is unique to Maine and stands out nationally because it clearly says that sexual orientation should not be a factor in any scouting activity. He says no one has complained about the policy or questioned it.

Pine Tree’s executive board adopted the policy, which says the organization has zero tolerance for sexual advocacy or inappropriate behavior of any kind within its scouting programs.

The policy says: “The Scouting programs do not provide sexual education or counseling. Scouts should look to their parents or guardians, religious leaders, professional educators and health care providers for guidance in this area.”

Tarbox said the policy makes it clear that the organization does not care what your sexual orientation is and that you won’t be treated unfairly or differently because of it.

“We teach and we practice tolerance for all people,” Tarbox said.

Gates’ remarks drew favorable reactions from Scout leaders and parents in Maine.

Tom Hall and his wife, Karen Richter-Hall, of Pownal have a son in Cub Scouts and another in Boy Scouts. They are avid supporters of scouting, and admit the organization has some catching up to do.

“I think (the Boy Scouts) have been a little behind the times. The ban does not reflect real life,” Tom Hall said. His 13-year-old son, Parker, is a Boy Scout, and his 9-year-old son, Mason, is a Cub Scout. “I’m really glad to see Dr. Gates talking about changing the ban. Everyone needs to be included.”

“People should be able to do what they want,” said Sam Yankee, a 12-year-old Boy Scout from Freeport.

His father, Tod Yankee, is a scoutmaster for Boy Scout Troop 45, which is based at the First Parish Congregational Church in Freeport.

Yankee said Gates is on the right track.

“I was pleased with what he had to say. It’s the right thing to do,” Yankee said.

Yankee said that while there is not unanimous agreement within his local group about allowing gay scout leaders, he said the national ban has hurt the organization.

“The (national) stance has kept some people away,” Yankee said.

Yankee said some Maine troops have veered slightly away from the national organization’s position on allowing gay scout leaders.

One of those groups is Ken Sparta’s Cub Scout pack, also based in Freeport and Pownal. His 9-year-old son is a Cub Scout.

“We are 100 percent inclusive. It makes sense for the community we serve,” Sparta said.

Sparta said his group has not always strictly followed the national policy, choosing gay individuals to serve as leaders of scouting committees. Currently, none of his den leaders is openly gay.

“Two years ago, we decided as a group that we weren’t going to make a big deal about it, but we also felt like we had people who were openly gay, parents that wanted to be in leadership positions,” Sparta said. “If anyone who was openly gay came to me and said I want to run a den, I wouldn’t have a problem with that.”

Tod Yankee said his sons ask him why the issue of allowing gay adults in leadership positions is controversial.

“For the scouts, it’s a non-issue,” Yankee said. “They see their friends living with two mothers or two dads or couples, who are same sex. Our kids say, why are we even talking about this?”