GRAPEVINE, Texas (Reuters) - The Boy Scouts of America voted on Thursday to lift a ban on openly gay scouts that had been in place throughout the organization's 103-year history, capping weeks of intense lobbying on both sides, the group said in a statement.
More than 60 percent of the group's National Council, composed of some 1,400 delegates, voted to end the ban effective January 1, 2014.
A prohibition on openly gay adult leaders remains in place.
The decision followed weeks of lobbying by gay rights activists and members of conservative organizations, many of them church groups that have traditionally formed the backbone of one of the nation's largest youth organizations.
The Boy Scouts' long-standing ban on gay scouts had become a polarizing issue at the center of the debate on gay rights in the United States, which allows gay soldiers to serve openly in the military.
The vote came about three months after the organization's leadership delayed a decision on changing its membership policy to research attitudes toward admitting gays.
Support for ending the ban on gay scouts came from some of the biggest American churches, including the Mormons and the Methodists, the two largest scouting sponsors in the United States.
About 70 percent of the group's 100,000 Boy Scout units are chartered by faith-based organizations, according to Boy Scouts membership data. Some 22 percent of the units nationwide are chartered by civic organizations, and 7 percent are chartered by educational groups.
While national polls show a growing acceptance of gay rights, an online survey of about 200,000 BSA members, parents and leaders indicated strong support for maintaining the ban, by a margin of almost 2-1.
"The Boy Scouts are not listening to us," said John Stemberger, an Orlando lawyer, Eagle Scout, former scoutmaster and founder of an organization that opposes lifting the ban.
The Boy Scouts' top leadership had endorsed the change and encouraged delegates to support it.
BSA board President Wayne Perry said in a webcast: "It was never our intent to prevent young people from being part of this organization."
Gay rights activists vowed to continue their campaign until the ban on gay adults is removed, too.
Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout raised by two lesbian mothers, said the time has come for change.
"There is nothing Scout-like about exclusion of other people, and there is nothing Scout-like about putting your own religious beliefs before someone else's," Wahls, founder of Scouts for Equality, told a news conference on Wednesday.
Gay rights advocates gathered petitions with more than 1.8 million signatures in support of ending the ban. Opponents collected about 250,000 signatures urging delegates to vote down the change. (Additional reporting by Corrie MacLaggan, Chris Francescani and Robin Respaut; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Scott Malone and Maureen Bavdek)