In an emotionally charged vote Thursday, the Boy Scouts of America lifted its ban on gay youth starting next January, the latest sign of a shift in American attitudes toward gays and lesbians.
After months of debate in local districts, more than 61 percent of the Boy Scouts national council approved a resolution overturning the prohibition on openly gay boys.
Gay adults will remain barred from serving as Scout leaders in a fiercely contested compromise that some warned could fracture the organization and lead to mass defections of members and donors.
Herb Williams, president of the Boy Scouts' Redwood Empire Council, which includes Sonoma and Mendocino counties, called the vote "a historic moment in our country."
"The majority of us together felt it was time, and I'm just happy that I was a part of it," Williams said.
The vote was greeted with loud applause at the large conference center in suburban Dallas where the annual meeting was held, Williams said.
However, the 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 and atheists lifted as well.
"I think there's still a long ways to go," said Steven Cozza, an Eagle Scout from Petaluma who began to speak out on the issue when he was 12, eventually forming an advocacy group, Scouting For All.
"This is a victory against bigotry and ignorance," the 28-year-old Cozza said. "But on the other hand, it left out half of the puzzle by still discriminating against adult Scout leaders" and atheists, he said.
In contrast, conservatives with the Scouts — including some churches that sponsor Scout units — wanted to continue excluding gay youths. Some have threatened to defect if the ban were lifted.
John Stemberger, president of the conservative Florida Family Policy Council, said opponents planned to meet in Louisville next month to discuss forming an alternate youth group "that does have timeless values." While standing at a press conference in his Scout uniform, he announced, "This will be the last time I wear this uniform."
"We are deeply saddened," said Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's executive committee. "Homosexual behavior is incompatible with the principles enshrined in the Scout oath and Scout law."
Some Scout participants on the North Coast are also troubled by the change, Williams suggested.
"I've had people come to me and say they may consider it (leaving the Scouts)," Williams said.
He would not say what individuals or troops had voiced concerns. There are 127 Boy Scout troops and Explorer units in the Redwood Empire Council, which oversees nearly 2,400 Scouts on the North Coast.
Williams said he hoped local troops opposed to the policy change would not act hastily.
"I want everybody to take time to think about it before they make their decision," Williams said.
Last year, the Redwood Empire Council board unanimously approved a statement declaring, in part, that the regional group "does not practice or support any form of unlawful discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation or political persuasion."
The BSA could take a financial hit from Thursday's decision. 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.