- Transgender girls are welcome at Girl Scouts, the national organization says
- Local councils will decide whom to admit on case-by-case basis
- Despite controversy, the Girl Scouts says it serves "all girls"
(CNN)Transgender girls are welcome in the Girl Scouts of the United States of America, a stance that has attracted controversy from some conservative groups over the past week.
"Our position is not new," said Andrea Bastiani Archibald, the Girl Scouts USA's chief girl expert. "It conforms with our continuous commitment to inclusivity."
The Girl Scouts' guidance on serving transgender girls, on its "Frequently Asked Questions" page, was actually made public four years ago.
"Placement of transgender youth is handled on a case-by-case basis, with the welfare and best interests of the child and the members of the troop/group in question a top priority," states the FAQ. "That said, if the child is recognized by the family and school/community as a girl and lives culturally as a girl, then Girl Scouts is an organization that can serve her in a setting that is both emotionally and physically safe."
It's possible that the Utah Pride Center's April launch of a Girl Scout troop that welcomes children from LGBT families and transgender girls brought the guidance to national attention of activists on both sides of the issue.
In 2012, a Denver troop attracted accolades and criticism for allowing a transgender girl to join its troop. One side effect: Supporters encouraged people to buy more cookies from their local troops while opponents advised people to stay away from the treats.
The guidance has raised the ire of conservative religious groups, which claimed that the Girl Scouts would be allowing boys "who are confused" to join.
Claiming that Girl Scouts has lost its "moral compass," the American Family Association created an online petition on May 13 to ask the organization to restrict its membership to "biological girls." It's attracted more than 38,000 e-signatures as of Wednesday.
"This means girls in the organization will be forced to recognize and accept transgenderism as a normal lifestyle," the petition read. "Boys in skirts, boys in make-up and boys in tents will become a part of the program. This change will put young innocent girls at risk."
A day after the petition was created, Archibald wrote a blog post citing Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low as the source of diversity that is essential to the organization.
"Our mission to build 'girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place' extends to all members, and through our program, girls develop the necessary leadership skills to advance diversity and promote tolerance," Archibald wrote.
The Girl Scouts' stance means that one of the most popular activities for girls is clearly accessible to transgender girls, said Ellen Kahn, director of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's Children, Youth & Families program, which focuses on LGBT rights.
"Scouting is such a big part of many children's lives," Kahn said. To her, the Girl Scouts' guidance tells young people that "if you're a girl, you belong here, and who are they to question someone's gender identity? They recognize that's not for them to do."
That doesn't mean the Girl Scouts USA can force local councils to welcome anybody. There are 112 Girl Scout councils across the country, all of which are separate nonprofit organizations. That's 2.8 million Girl Scouts -- 2 million children and 800,000 adult members who are mostly volunteers.
The national organization provides guidance to local Girl Scout councils on many issues. It works with the councils to ensure that the Girl Scouts' mission to build girls of courage, confidence and character, extends to all girls, but it doesn't dictate policy to them.
"Inclusion of transgender girls is handled at a council level on a case by case basis, with the welfare and best interests of all members as a top priority," Archibald wrote in her blog post.
As for their critics? "Luckily, we don't serve our critics," she told CNN. "We are proud to serve all girls."