GRAPEVINE, Texas - The Boy Scouts of America threw open its ranks Thursday to gay Scouts but not gay Scout leaders -- a fiercely contested compromise that some warned could fracture the organization and lead to mass defections of members and donors.
Of the roughly 1,400 voting members of the BSA's National Council who cast ballots, 61 percent supported the proposal drafted by the governing Executive Committee. The policy change takes effect Jan. 1.
"While people have different opinions about this policy, we can all agree that kids are better off when they are in Scouting," the BSA said after announcing the results at the council's annual meeting near Dallas.
However, the outcome will not end the bitter debate over the Scouts' membership policy.
Liberal Scout leaders -- while supporting the proposal to accept gay youth -- have made clear they want the ban on gay adults lifted as well.
In contrast, conservatives with the Scouts -- including some churches that sponsor Scout units -- wanted to continue excluding gay youths, in some cases threatening to defect if the ban were lifted.
"We are deeply saddened," said Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's executive committee after learning of the result. "Homosexual behavior is incompatible with the principles enshrined in the Scout oath and Scout law."
The Assemblies of God, another conservative denomination, said the policy change "will lead to a mass exodus from the Boy Scout program."
The result was welcomed by many gay-rights groups, which joined in the call for an end to the ban on gay adults.
"I'm so proud of how far we've come, but until there's a place for everyone in Scouting, my work will continue," said Jennifer Tyrrell, who's ouster as a Cub Scout den leader in Ohio because she is lesbian launched a national protest movement.
The vote followed what the BSA described as "the most comprehensive listening exercise in Scouting's history" to gauge opinions within the community.
The BSA could also take a hit financially. Many Scout units in conservative areas fear their local donors will stop giving if the ban on gay youth is lifted.
The BSA executive committee suggested a plan in January to give sponsors of local Scout units the option of admitting gays as both youth members and adult leaders or continuing to exclude them. However, the plan won little praise, and the BSA changed course after assessing responses to surveys sent out starting in February to members of the Scouting community.
Of the more than 200,000 leaders, parents and youth members who responded, 61 percent supported the current policy of excluding gays, while 34 percent opposed it. However, most parents of young Scouts, as while as youth members themselves, opposed the ban.
The proposal approved Thursday was seen as a compromise, and the Scouts stressed that they would not condone sexual conduct by any Scout -- gay or straight.
"The Boy Scouts of America will not sacrifice its mission, or the youth served by the movement, by allowing the organization to be consumed by a single, divisive, and unresolved societal issue," a BSA statement said.
Since the executive committee just completed a lengthy review process, "there are no plans for further review on this matter," the group said.
The BSA's overall "traditional youth membership" -- Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Venturers -- is now about 2.6 million, compared with more than 4 million in peak years of the past. It also has about 1 million adult leaders and volunteers.
Of the more than 100,000 Scouting units in the U.S., 70 percent are chartered by religious institutions.
Those include liberal churches opposed to any ban on gays, but some of the largest sponsors are relatively conservative denominations that have previously supported the broad ban -- notably the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Southern Baptist churches.
The BSA, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2010, has long excluded both gays and atheists.
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, and several local Scout councils made public their displeasure with the policy.
Crary reported from New York.
Online: BSA Membership Standards Resolution: http://bit.ly/185yyXk
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