GRAPEVINE, Texas - 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.
Gay adults will remain barred from serving as Scout leaders.
Of the local Scout leaders voting at their annual meeting in Texas, more than 60 percent supported the proposal.
Former scout maser Mark Noel, of Hanover, NH, holds up a new merit badge of inclusion during a press conference at the Equal Scouting Summit being held near where the Boy Scouts of America are holding their annual meeting Wednesday, May 22, 2013, in Grapevine, Texas. Delegates to the Boys Scouts of America meeting are expected to address a proposal to allow gay scouts into the organization.
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 vote will not end the wrenching debate over the Scouts' membership policy, and it could trigger defections among those on the losing side.
Some conservative churches that sponsor Scout units wanted to continue excluding gay youths, and in some cases threatened to leave the BSA if the ban were lifted.
More liberal Scout leaders - while supporting the proposal to accept gay youth - wanted the ban on gay adults lifted as well.
The BSA could also take a hit financially. Many Scout units in conservative areas feared their local donors would stop giving if the ban on gay youth were lifted, while many major corporate donors were likely to withhold donations if the ban had remained.
In January, the BSA executive committee suggested a plan 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.
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 was satisfied with new proposal, and the National Catholic Committee on Scouting did not oppose it.
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.