In one of their most dramatic choices in a century, local leaders of the Boy Scouts of America voted Thursday to ease a divisive ban and allow openly gay boys to be accepted into the nation's leading youth organization.
While the organization has upheld a ban on gay scout leaders, the result is likely to bitterly disappoint many. The decision could trigger defections among those on the losing side.
Casting ballots were about 1,400 voting members of BSA's National Council who were attending their annual meeting at a conference center not far from BSA headquarters in suburban Dallas.
The proposal was drafted by the BSA's governing executive committee and says boys can no longer be excluded from scouting solely on the basis of sexual orientation. A longstanding ban on gay adult leaders would remain in place.
The vote ia not likely to end the wrenching debate over the Scouts' membership policy.
Some conservative churches that sponsor Scout units want to continue excluding gay youths, and in some cases had threatened to leave the BSA if the ban were lifted.
More liberal Scout leaders — while supporting the proposal to accept gay youth — have made clear they want the ban on gay adults lifted as well. If the full no-gays policy is maintained, some units in liberal areas may consider either leaving the Scouts or openly defying the ban.
The BSA could also take a hit financially. Many Scout units in conservative areas fear their local donors will likely stop giving now that the ban on gay youth has been lifted, while many major corporate donors would have been likely to withhold donations had the ban been upheld.
The proposal was drafted after BSA leaders sent out surveys starting in February to members of the Scouting community nationwide.
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.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, and on Wednesday as National Council members arrived in Grapevine, advocacy groups on both sides of the debate organized news conferences, photo opportunities and forums to make their case.
Two conservative groups opposed to any easing of the ban — the Family Research Council and OnMyHonor.net — placed an ad Thursday in the Dallas Morning News warning that lifting the ban on gay youth would trigger lawsuits that could force the BSA to admit gay adults as well as youth. It said lifting the ban on gay boys could drive out as many as 400,000 of the Scouts' youth members.
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 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced in April that it supports the new proposal, and the National Catholic Committee on Scouting has not opposed it.
However, 50 leaders of other conservative religious groups have issued a statement imploring the National Council to retain the full ban, warning that easing it "would open the Scouts to a wide range of open sexual expressions."
The signatories included the leaders of the Assemblies of God, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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