The Boy Scouts of America on Thursday voted to accept in its ranks
openly gay Scouts in a divisive decision that will continue to ripple through
the organization and could lead to loss of members.
The organization's ban on homosexual adult leaders remains.
About 60 percent of the 1,400 Scout leaders meeting in Grapevine, Texas voted to lift the ban on admitting gay Scouts. "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 BSA said in a statement following the vote.
The policy change will go into effect on Jan. 1.
Thursday's vote will not end the wrenching debate over the Scouts' membership policy, and it could trigger defections among those on the losing side. A majority of the 816 Scout troops in metro Atlanta are connected with churches or meet in religious facilities. Pastors at least two large metro churches have expressed their opposition to lifting the ban on gays.
In February, Randy Mickler, senior minister at Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, said he was adamantly against a change accepting gay scouts and leaders.
"In all honesty, if the Scouts were to change their policy and become more gay friendly with the idea of using Scout masters, the church couldn't support it," Mickler told WSB-TV.
Mickler's church hosts a large troop and earlier this year had eight teens become Eagle Scouts, the organization's highest rank. But Mickler told the TV station he would have to ask the troop to leave if the BSA changed the policy to accept gay scouts and leaders. He could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.
Dale Merkle, a former Scout leader whose son was a Scout and gay, called the vote "terrific and surprising."
"Justice isn't always easy to do, but it's always the right thing to do," said Merkle, a retired college professor who lives near Decatur. "Good, primarily Christian people have been holding some of God's children hostage."
Merkle was a leader in PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), an organization that protested the BSA during a convention in Atlanta in 2007. "I rallied on behalf of all those youngsters who want all the benefits that Boy Scouts provide but can't get them."
Interviews with several Atlanta area Scout leaders found that most leaned against lifting the ban on gay Scouts and more strongly opposed accepting gay leaders.
One Cobb County troop leader said allowing gay Scouts is "a backdoor acceptance."
"If he gets his Eagle (Scout ranking) and becomes 18, then wants to be a leader, what do you do, kick him out?" asked the leader, who called back after an interview asking that his name not be used because he was starting a business. "I think this will scare people away from scouting."
Larry Bishop, a Scout leader in Marietta since 1996, has had 28 Eagle Scouts in his troop. He said each unit operates in an independent fashion within the framework of the BSA. "I don't think we'd turn away a gay Scout," he said before the vote results were announced.
However, he said, the efforts to mandate the acceptance of gay Scouts and gay leaders was "an infringement on our rights as an organization."
"I don't want to purposely discriminate, but I don't want their beliefs foisted on me," Bishop said.
Bishop added that life has gotten complicated. He noted that his troop was sponsored by an Episcopal church. "They do accept gays into the clergy, so it's a bit of a sticking point."
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, called the vote "a monumental step forward" for the Scouts.
"This milestone has been years in the making," Carey said. But, "by retaining the discriminatory ban on gay adults, the Boy Scouts of America has signaled that this core value is up for grabs, that a level playing field remains out of reach and that it's still OK to target others for second-class treatment."
Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's executive committee, said after learning of the decision, "We are deeply saddened."
"Homosexual behavior is incompatible with the principles enshrined in the Scout oath and Scout law," he said.
The Assemblies of God, another conservative denomination, said in a statement the policy change "will lead to a mass exodus from the Boy Scout program."
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, 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 organization'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 BSA's overall 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.
The Atlanta area has more than 34,000 Scouts.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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