In an emotionally charged vote Thursday, the Boy Scouts of America lifted its ban on gay youth starting in January, the latest sign of a shift in American attitudes toward gays and lesbians.
After months of debate in local districts, more than 61 percent of the Boy Scouts national council approved a resolution at its annual meeting, overturning the long-standing prohibition on openly gay youth, while retaining a ban on gay adult leaders. Of 1,232 votes, 757 were in favor.
Gay advocates called the vote a step in the right direction for the 103-year-old group, among the nation's largest youth organizations, with more than 2.6 million youth members.
"Today's vote ending discrimination of gay Scouts is truly a historic moment and demonstrates the Boy Scouts of America's commitment to creating a more inclusive organization," said Zach Wahls, 21, an Iowa Eagle Scout raised by lesbian mothers who founded Scouts for Equality, which advocates for gays in Scouting. He traveled to Texas for the vote.
Barry F. Williams, board chair of the Baltimore Area Council of the Boy Scouts, said he was pleased with the decision and maintained that the local council had never removed any members on the basis of their sexual identity.
"It's a major step toward being more mainstream, while reflecting the strength and character of the Boy Scouts of America," said Williams, reached by phone in Texas shortly after participating in the vote.
Ethan Draddy, a Scouting executive from the Baltimore Area Council, agreed.
"It's a great day for Scouting," he said.
Williams said he hopes the decision will encourage some people who have left the Boy Scouts in protest over the ban on gay members to return.
"It says that the Boy Scouts on the national level are moving toward being much more inclusive, and I think that's a good thing," he said. "It's not so far from what we've been doing in the Baltimore Area Council."
Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland, said the Boy Scouts will next need to address the issue of allowing gay troop leaders, but called the vote a "good first step."
"They're moving on so they can refocus the organization's mission on developing young leaders, and not to have the first thing you associate with them be their ban on gay youth and gay leaders," Evans said.
Opponents vowed to fight the new policy, which they warned would damage flagging membership and funding.
Some of the protesters who opposed lifting the ban had gathered in Boy Scout uniforms on the road leading into the hotel. A few returned Thursday, looking crestfallen.
"It's a disaster," said William Tarbell, 68, a Boy Scout unit commissioner from Reno, taking off his 60-year-old broad-brimmed Scouting cap. "I will no longer wear it."
Jonathan Saenz, president of the Austin-based conservative advocacy group Texas Values, which organized one of the protests outside the annual meeting, called the vote a " tragic decision" that showed the Boy Scouts had "chosen to place sex and politics above its timeless principles."
He blamed national leaders who called for the vote and "willingly opened the door to allow homosexual advocates to overrun an organization that stands for a code of morality that these intolerant advocates reject." He predicted the vote could destroy the organization.
John Stemberger, president of the conservative Florida Family Policy Council, said opponents planned to meet in Louisville, Ky., next month to discuss forming an alternate youth group "that does have timeless values." While standing at a news conference in his Scout uniform, he announced, "This will be the last time I wear this uniform."
After delaying a vote earlier this year, Boy Scout executives polled members on the issue this spring and devised the resolution as a compromise. The prohibition of gay Scout leaders remains unchanged, and in a statement issued after the vote, the Boy Scouts noted that the resolution reinforces the stipulation that any sexual conduct by youths in the program is "contrary to the virtues of Scouting."
Wayne Brock, chief executive of Boy Scouts of America, called the debate "a challenging chapter in our history" and said the vote was "truly in the best interests of Scouting."
"It allows us to better serve kids," he said. "The decision has been made — it's time to stand together."
Officials said that in coming days a national implementation team would begin working with local councils to prepare guidelines for implementing the resolution.
Though the Baltimore Area Council said it had no issues regarding gay membership, that has not been the case elsewhere. Earlier this year, a Cub Scout troop in Montgomery County was forced to remove part of an anti-discrimination notice on its website that included sexual orientation, according to the website and media reports. The troop received notice from the National Capital Area Council that it had to remove the language accepting diversity of sexual orientation from its website or its charter would not be renewed, and Pack 442 took down the notice.
The news media were not allowed inside the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center, where the annual meeting began Wednesday, and reporters were not allowed in when the vote was taken.
It was not immediately clear whether the new policy would help or hurt Boy Scout membership and funding. About 70 percent of troops are sponsored by religious organizations, the largest among them the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Mormon officials had supported the resolution, and on Thursday the church said it would work with the Boy Scouts "to harmonize what Scouting has to offer with the varying needs of our young men."
Some troops affiliated with conservative churches have said they could not accept the new policy.
Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, said, "Our sadness for the Scouting organization as a whole cannot be overstated." Southern Baptist leaders have been gearing up to absorb boys who leave Scouting into their own youth group, the Royal Ambassadors.
Wells reported from Baltimore. Tribune Newspapers reporter Kim Christensen contributed to this article.