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.
"While people have different opinions about this policy, we can all agree that kids are better off when they are in Scouting," the BSA said after announcing the results at the council's annual meeting near Dallas.
Locally, Calumet Council President T. Edward Page, who oversees about 300 troops in the region, said members agreed with the vote and were ready to move forward.
"The Calumet Council believes that the Scouting program should be available to all," he said. "We supported this change and look forward to reaching out to families who have not previously been involved because of this issue."
He said the council has supported the change for about 12 years and in 2001 had proposed a resolution to change membership policies.
Page attended the meeting in Texas and said there was an open and emotional debate prior to Thursday's vote. The issue also had been debated between the national council, the local council, local units and members of the community.
"It has been the most extensive and open debate that the Boy Scouts had ever had on any subject," he said. "The number of people who participated were in the hundreds of thousands."
Bill Eckert, a scoutmaster for Troop 907 in Valparaiso, part of the LaSalle Council, said the vote had not been discussed with the local troop. He said it was national policy that the troop would have to adopt.
Thursday's 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.
"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 a lesbian launched a national protest movement.
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 also could 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.