(CNN) — Openly gay youths will be allowed to join scouting, a historic decision the Boy Scouts of America says will keep it unclouded by “a single, divisive, and unresolved societal issue.”
More than 60% of the group’s 1,400-member national council voted Thursday at an annual meeting in Grapevine, Texas, for the change, which takes effect Jan. 1.
“No youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone,” says the resolution.
The BSA, however, will maintain its ban on gay adult leaders.
“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,” the 103-year-old organization said in a statement after the vote.
The BSA said there are no plans for further review of the issue.
BSA President Wayne Perry said the vote came after “an extensive dialogue within the scouting family (that) was exhaustive and … very respectful.”
“No matter how you feel about this issue, kids are better off in scouting,” Perry told reporters. “Our mission is to serve every kid.”
Reaction from interest groups to Thursday’s vote was swift.
The Human Rights Campaign said the BSA took a “historic step forward.”
“Unfortunately, the new policy does not go far enough, leaving adult Eagle Scouts, scout leaders, and parents behind,” the group said.
Scouts for Equality and GLAAD lauded the BSA’s “commitment to creating a more inclusive organization.”
Jennifer Tyrrell, an Ohio mother who was ousted as a den leader in April 2012 because she’s lesbian, called Thursday’s vote “incredible.”
“They’ve never been raised to discriminate against anyone regardless of sex or color or anything, so they can’t understand why people care so much,” she said of her children. “… Definitely, one day, I hope they look back and think that we’re part of something amazing.”
Tyrrell, in an interview with CNN affiliate KTVT, said that the vote energized her for her next push — to change Boy Scout policy so that gays and lesbian adults, like herself, can serve as leaders.
“When we used to exclude women from things, when we used to exclude black people from things, and that never has ever worked, but we continue to do it,” she said. “I’m going to be around to make sure that that’s not the case. We’re definitely not going to go away.”
Conservative groups and some religious organizations argued against making any change in the membership policy, saying it would dilute the Boy Scout message of morality and potentially destroy the organization.
John Stemberger, founder of OnMyHonor.net, which opposed the resolution, called the vote a “sad day for Scouting.”
Stemberger claimed that Boy Scout officials didn’t foster a “robust discussion,” didn’t provide “honest information” and “hid information from the delegates.”
He claimed that scouting groups now have two options: to “segregate” gay scouts from heterosexual ones by putting them in separate tents, or “put homosexual boys with other boys and put them at risk.”
“We wouldn’t put boys and girls sleeping together. Why? Because they’re attracted to each other,” Stemberger told reporters.
The conservative Family Research Council tweeted: “Sadly, the @boyscouts’ legacy of producing great leaders has become yet another casualty of moral compromise.”
BSA conducted a survey on the issue
The vote followed months of intense debate among interest groups and within the ranks of Scouting itself.
In February, the Boy Scouts’ national executive board postponed a vote on the issue and ordered a survey of its members.
That survey showed an organization divided by age and, in some cases, by region.
“While a majority of adults in the Scouting community support the BSA’s current policy of excluding open and avowed homosexuals, young parents and teens tend to oppose the policy,” the survey said.
A BSA spokesman at the time called the issue “among the most complex and challenging issues facing the BSA and society today.”
“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,” the group said after Thursday’s decision.
Chief Scout Executive Wayne Brock said, “Our goal through all of this was to put kids first … It allows us to serve youth who want to be part of scouting.”
A long time grappling with a polarizing issue
The BSA for years has been at the center of the debate over gay rights.
A recent Washington Post-ABC News Poll showed that 63% of Americans said they would support allowing gay youths to join the Boy Scouts.
The vote comes more than a decade after the Supreme Court ruled that the organization has the right to keep out gays but also at a time of declining participation in the organization.
Membership in Boy Scouts has declined by about a third since 1999. About 2.7 million people now participate nationwide.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, after the vote, said it will continue to work with the BSA.
“Sexual orientation has not previously been — and is not now — a disqualifying factor for boys who want to join Latter-day Saint Scout troops,” it said in a statement.
It was too early to tell what impact the decision might have on scout troops, and whether some families may join other organizations.
The impending vote did spur action by a new organization called Faith Based Boys. Thomas Dillingham, an official from that group, said applications will be accepted starting in August for youth members and group leaders.
“Christian churches and organizations will use this program to continue serving God by training young men to have good character through service to their communities,” Dillingham said Thursday. “The profound need for a nationwide program like this has now been realized and the relevance of such a program will only become more important as time goes on.”
Tico Perez, the BSA’s national commissioner, said there have been ongoing talks with churches and others opposed to the inclusion of gay scouts.
That said, he echoed other Boy Scout officials in saying they believe that Thursday’s vote ultimately helps advance the cause.
“We’re accepting youth,” Perez said, “and we’re excited about where we are.”
CNN’s Katia Hetter and Ed Payne contributed to this report.