The Boy Scouts of America today voted to lift its longtime national ban on admitting openly gay Scouts but will continue to exclude openly gay adults from leadership roles.
The vote by its 1,400 national membership came as no surprise to gay rights advocates, who hailed it as a first step to ending discriminatory practices in the 103-year-old organization.
The Boy Scouts said that it had completed its "most comprehensive listening exercise in Scouting's history" on the issue and will change its policy Jan. 1, 2014.
"The Boy Scouts of America will not sacrifice its mission, or the youth served by the movement, by allowing the organization to be consumed by a single, divisive and unresolved societal issue," it said in a statement.
"While people have different opinions about this policy, we can all agree that kids are better off when they are in Scouting," it said. "Going forward, our Scouting family will continue to focus on reaching and serving youth in order to help them grow into good, strong citizens. 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."
President of the Boy Scouts of America Wayne Perry, in a press conference following the vote, said, "This is a very difficult decision for a lot of people, but we're moving forward together. ... Our vision is to serve every kid."
Jennifer Tyrrell, who was ousted as den mother of her 8-year-old son Cruz's Ohio troop because she is a lesbian, told ABC's Dallas-Fort Worth affiliate WFAA, "This is what we've been working for. It's a small step in the right direction, but it's huge in another way. We've been working so hard for 13 months to bring this ... at least where it is."
But the ruling, decided by secret ballot at a national convention in Dallas, still excludes mothers like Tyrrell. Still, she applauds what she considers a "temporary" policy.
"I am encouraged, because we definitely are in it for the long haul," Tyrrell, a 33-year-old mother of four told ABCNews.com. "Once the ban is lifted on youth, they will see their fears are unfounded. There are going to be [gay] boys who want to continue as leaders. It's just a matter of time."
She said she would continue to fight for other gay families who wanted to be part of the Scouts.
But others, such as former former Eagle Scout James Dale, who brought the lawsuit against the Boy Scouts that made it all the way to the Supreme Court in 2000, said the partial lifting of the ban makes the organization "less relevant."
"They are continuing to discriminate against people," said Dale. "They say let's get back to Scouting and move away from sexuality, but ... the issue won't go away. There can be no compromise for ending discrimination."
In 1991, he was fired as an assistant Scoutmaster of a New Jersey troop when he came out of the closet in college. He lost the Supreme Court case by one vote.
Growing up, Dale said he found the Boy Scouts to be "one of the organizations that were the most welcoming and accepting."
But today, he sees it as an "anti-gay organization" that is out of step with a culture that is rapidly accepting same-sex families.
"You can have gay Scouts, [but] you can't have gay Scout leaders or anyone over the age of 18," said Dale, who's now 42 and works in advertising in New York City.
"It's still a damning and destructive message that they're going to send to young people. "They will go from celebrated Eagle Scout when they're 17 years old to basically not being welcome anymore once the clock strikes 12 and they're 18 years old."
"It's kind of fascinating that the Boy Scouts of America are still so stuck," he said. "They're willing to destroy the organization. Over some ... small-minded values."
About 70 percent of all local troops are supported by religious groups, according to the Boy Scouts.
One such group, the Assemblies of God leadership, said in a prepared statement that it "regrets" the decision. "We believe, as do a majority of Boy Scout volunteer leaders and parents, that this is not the best policy for BSA, nor for the young men it serves."
But in recent months, some churches have backed away from their opposition, according to the gay advocacy group GLAAD.
The Mormon church, which sponsors most of the troops, has now endorsed allowing gay Scouts. The Roman Catholic Church has taken no official position. The National Jewish Committee on Scouting, the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Metropolitan Community Church all urged full repeal of the ban.
But many other Christian groups stood firm in protest, citing religious freedom and the previous Supreme Court decision.
Nearly 19,000 past or current members of the Scouts signed a petition from Alliance Defending Freedom, which was delivered to the Boy Scouts this week, urging it to keep the ban.
John Stemberger founder of OnMyHonor.net, a group of former Scouts, leaders and parents who oppose lifting the ban, said the organization worried less about sexual identity than gay activism.
"Our policy says we don't discriminate against sexual orientation," he said. "There has never been a witch hunt to find people. Scouts is about camping, tying knots and building fires.
"We don't want to see a sex and politics effect," he said. "Gay Scouts have been in the program for many years. They are kicked out because they engage in behavior and conduct that is distracting to Scouting."
Groups on all sides of the issue descended on the Gaylord Hotel this week where delegates met, hoping to sway the vote.
Stemberger said his group's attempts to distribute buttons and 1,000 copies of a newspaper ad in the Dallas Morning News to delegates were thwarted by the Boy Scouts security guards who asked them to leave the hotel property.
The group had hoped to counter Boy Scouts of America President Wayne Perry's op-ed piece in USA Today urging the delegates to allow gay youth to be part of Scouting.
Stemberger criticized the Boy Scouts for not providing his group with the delegate list and called the vote a "very closed process."
"The Scouts are supposed to respect other opinions," said Stemberger, a Scoutmaster. "There should have been a robust debate and an education process, not a sales job."
The secret-ballot decision came as public opinion has dramatically shifted on the issue of gay rights. According to a recent recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, 63 percent of Americans favor admitting gay Scouts, and 56 percent oppose banning gay Scout leaders.
Several prominent CEOs, including Ernst & Young's James S. Turley and AT&T's Randall Stephenson, both of whom sit on the national board, have openly pushed for an end to the ban on both Scouts and leaders.
Last year, the controversial "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military policy was ended. Same-sex marriage is now legal in 12 states and the District of Columbia. At least a half dozen other states are considering legislative action.
The Supreme Court is currently considering repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and a challenge to the California ban on same-sex marriage, known as Proposition 8.
There's evidence the gay ban has hurt the organization. Membership rolls have dropped in three of the four regions overall nationally, according to a source within the Boy Scouts of America who works in recruitment and writes under the pseudonym Andrew Johnson.
He said that paperwork from the national organization showed a 58 percent drop in membership between 1972 and 2012.
In an editorial in Time magazine this week, writing under his pseudonym, he described himself as a "full-time paid professional employee of the Boy Scouts of America," who had dedicated his life to Scouting, starting as a young boy and later attaining Eagle Scout. He has now worked for the organization for five years.
He said he and many other gay Scouts "live with apprehension, hiding our personal lives and not knowing if we could be outed and fired at any moment."
He told ABCNews.com today that he is "heartened" to know the Boy Scouts is "on its way toward becoming a more welcoming, inclusive organization that allows viewpoints from people of all faiths."
"Councils, especially in the Northeast region will continue calling for full equality of Scouts and adults," said Johnson. "By voting to allow all boys to join Scouting today, the organization has positioned itself to allow adult leaders in the future."
But he also added that he will consider quitting his job in the next few weeks because of the decision not to lift the ban on older Scouts, leaders and employees.
Meanwhile, lesbian mom Jennifer Tyrrell said that despite the incremental success, she would not be letting her son Cruz go back to Scouting.
"I would not feel comfortable," she said. "I will keep him out until everyone is equal. With the current proposal, it sends the message to [same-sex] families that they are not normal. I don't want him around that message."