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.
"Within our movement, everyone agrees on one thing, no matter how you feel about this issue, kids are better off in scouting. Our vision is to serve every kid. We want every kid to have a place where they can grow," said Wayne Perry, BSA National President.
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.
“The Boys Scouts of America has been built upon the values of faith and family for more than 100 years and today’s decision contradicts generations of tradition in the name of political correctness. While I will always cherish my time as a scout and the life lessons I learned, I am greatly disappointed with this decision," said Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in a statement.
"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.
Eric Hay, 22, an Eagle Scout, said he has been working for a policy change for some time.
"I'm excited to move forward and continue [Scouting] because I'm bisexual," he said. "And I'd love to be able to do something with Scouts some time in the future. It would mean a lot to me."
But other members, such as 13-year-old Sean Metcalf, have reservations.
"I hope to stay in Scouting, but it depends if my parents feel it's safe or not," he said.
His father, David, an adult leader for his son's troop, said his family would pay close attention to how the rule change is implemented and "be prepared to do what we have to do to protect our sons."
"It could be, the ultimate, is to leave the organization," he said.
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 well 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.
The Boy Scouts of America released the following statement Thursday afternoon:
"For 103 years, the Boy Scouts of America has been a part of the fabric of this nation, with a focus on working together to deliver the nation's foremost youth program of character development and values-based leadership training.
Based on growing input from within the Scouting family, the BSA leadership chose to conduct an additional review of the organization's long-standing membership policy and its impact on Scouting's mission. This review created an outpouring of feedback from the Scouting family and the American public, from both those who agree with the current policy and those who support a change.
Today, following this review, the most comprehensive listening exercise in Scouting's history the approximate 1,400 voting members of the Boy Scouts of America's National Council approved a resolution to remove the restriction denying membership to youth on the basis of sexual orientation alone. The resolution also reinforces that Scouting is a youth program, and any sexual conduct, whether heterosexual or homosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting. A change to the current membership policy for adult leaders was not under consideration; thus, the policy for adults remains in place. The BSA thanks all the national voting members who participated in this process and vote.
This policy change is effective Jan. 1, 2014, allowing the Boy Scouts of America the transition time needed to communicate and implement this policy to its approximately 116,000 Scouting units.
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. As the National Executive Committee just completed a lengthy review process, there are no plans for further review on this matter.
While people have different opinions about this policy, we can all agree that kids are better off when they are in Scouting. Going forward, our Scouting family will continue to focus on reaching and serving youth in order to help them grow into good, strong citizens. America's youth need Scouting, and by focusing on the goals that unite us, we can continue to accomplish incredible things for young people and the communities we serve."
NBC 5's Ben Russell contributed to this report.