[Updated at 6:55 p.m. CT]
DALLAS – The Boy Scouts of America, one of the country’s largest and oldest youth organizations, decided on Thursday to break 103 years of tradition by allowing openly gay members into its ranks.
The controversial move was approved by more than 60 percent of the approximate 1,400 votes cast by the BSA’s national council. According to the new resolution, beginning Jan. 1, 2014, “no youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone.”
“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 stated in a press release.
Lifting the organization’s ban on gay adult volunteer leaders and paid staff was not considered and remains in place.
Pascal Tessier, a gay Scout from Maryland, told Yahoo News that he was ecstatic with the outcome.
“Proud, happy and on top of the world,” he said.
Tessier, 16, had feared that a no vote would mean he would not earn his Eagle award next year.
“The delegates proved me wrong,” Tessier said.
Texas Governor Rick Perry told the Texas Tribune, “While I will always cherish my time as a Scout ... I am greatly disappointed with this decision.”
The emotionally charged issue has seen those for and against it wage costly public relations campaigns, and has fostered intense debate from coast to coast.
In a statement, John Stemberger, an Eagle Scout and leader of a coalition of people who opposed the change, accused the BSA of caving to polls, politics and public opinion.
“It is with great sadness and deep disappointment that we recognize on this day that the most influential youth program in America has turned a tragic corner,” Stemberger stated in a press release. “The vote today to allow open and avowed homosexuality into Scouting will completely transform it into an unprincipled and risky proposition for parents. It is truly a sad day for Scouting.”
Stemberger, founder of On My Honor, stated his group and other like-minded organizations will meet in Louisville, Ky., next month to discuss creating a new character-development organization for boys.
The historic change comes 13 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that BSA is a private club that is allowed to set its own rules for membership. Since then, public pressure has mounted for the Texas-based organization to change the exclusion, especially last year, when a gay California teen was denied his Eagle Scout award and an Ohio lesbian was removed as a den mother from her son’s troop.
Still, just 10 months ago, the Scouts reaffirmed their stance, saying a two-year confidential review revealed a majority of the organization’s parents wanted to keep the policy. The about-face to put it to a vote came “out of respect for the diverse beliefs of Scouting's chartered organizations,” according to the BSA website.
After the vote, the Scouts stated there would be no plans to revisit the issue.
“While people have different opinions about this policy, we can all agree that kids are better off when they are in Scouting,” they stated in a press release. “ … America’s youth need Scouting, and by focusing on the goals that unite us, we can continue to accomplish incredible things for young people and the communities we serve.”
News of the change brought tears of joy to Melanie Gerken, the mother of an Eagle Scout and a longtime volunteer with Cleveland-area troops.
“It’s about time,” said Gerken, choking back tears.
She said she hopes the organization takes it a step further by allowing gay volunteers to work with Scouts.
“Being homosexual doesn’t make you a pedophile,” Gerken told Yahoo News. “I don’t care what goes on in your bedroom behind closed doors. What can you do for other people and youth?”