Supporters of the ban on gay members point to the Scout oath, which includes the line "On my honor I will do my best .... to keep myself physically strong, mentally alert and morally straight."
The Boy Scouts of America voted Thursday to allow gay youth to participate in scouting. The historic vote, with 61% in favor, signals another shift in American public opinion about homosexuality but still leaves the organization with many future hurdles.
"It brings the Boy Scouts back into the American mainstream," said Beth Gazley, a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington who studies non-profits.
The vote overturns a 22-year-old ban on openly gay scouts. It was based on a line from the 1911 Boy Scouts of America oath: "On my honor I will do my best….to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight."
Since 1991 the Scouts have barred openly gay individuals from participating in Scouting because it was decided that being gay was incompatible with being "morally straight."
The proposal was voted upon by more than 1,400 voting members of the organization's national council at its annual meeting in Grapevine, Texas, near the Scouts' national headquarters in suburban Dallas. It will become effective Jan. 1, 2014.
Delegates were asked to vote on whether openly gay boys and teens should be allowed to participate in scouting. The Scouts plan to continue their ban on gay adult Scout leaders. More than 2,000 Boy Scout leaders and officials are attending the meeting, which concludes Friday.
"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," the scouts said in a statement released when the vote results were announced.
"While people have different opinions about this policy, we can all agree that kids are better off when they are in Scouting. Going forward, our Scouting family will continue to focus on reaching and serving youth in order to help them grow into good, strong citizens."
Gay Scouts, Scout leaders and their supporters were ecstatic. They were holding what they called an Equal Scouting Summit across the street from the meeting. It was sponsored by two pro-gay Scout groups, Scouts for Equality and the Inclusive Scouting Network.
"Honestly, today I thought it was going to be the last day that I was going to be a Boy Scout. But the Boy Scouts delegates proved me wrong," said Pascal Tessier, a 16-year-old Scout from Kensington, Md. He thanked his family for being so supportive of him, especially his 20-year-old brother, Lucien, an Eagle Scout, who started an on-line petition to get the scouts to make the change.
"Like my brother before me, I now have a chance to earn my Eagle award—something that's taken most of my life to achieve. Finally, Scouts are no longer forced to choose between upholding the Scout Oath and being open and honest about who they really are as a person," Tessier said.
Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute in Washington, D.C., said the shift "would utterly change Scouting and dramatically reduce their ranks. The Catholic and Mormon groups would simply have to walk away."
That's not necessarily true, however. In a statement posted on its website in April, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stated that it appreciated the "positive things contained in this current proposal [to allow gay Scouts] that will help build and strengthen the moral character and leadership skills of youth as we work together in the future."
About 70% of all Scout troops are run by faith-based organizations, according to the Boy Scouts of America. About 37% are Mormon, 10% Methodist and 8% Catholic.
Robert Volk, a law professor at Boston University who studies civil rights law, isn't too worried about troops losing sponsors. "It's a chicken and egg thing. Their policy has given them the sponsors they have because those are the groups that believe in conservative ideals."
While scouting might lose some conservative members, the rest of America "is going to come back," said Gazley. "In the short term it will be messy, in the long term it's going to work for them."
The issue of gay Scouts has long been contentious. In 2000 the Supreme Court ruled that the Scouts could legally bar homosexuals from being troop leaders. The case centered on a gay Scout leader in New Jersey, James Dale, who was dismissed in 1990.
A similar case involving a gay Scout, Tim Curran, made it to the California Supreme. Curran a took a male date to his senior prom. The Mount Diablo Boy Scout Council then barred him from scouting activities and he sued. The California court ruled for the Scouts in 1998.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released May 9 found that 63% of Americans support allowing gay Scouts to join and 56% believe openly gay adults should be allowed to serve as Scout leaders. Public opinion is changing rapidly. In 2012 a USA Today/Gallup poll found only 42% of Americans said they believed openly gay adults should be Scout leaders.
Follow @eweise on Twitter.