GRAPEVINE, Texas — In a landmark step its chief executive called ‘‘compassionate, caring, and kind,’’ the Boy Scouts of America on Thursday ended its longstanding policy of forbidding openly gay youths to participate in its activities.
The decision, which followed years of resistance and wrenching internal debate, was widely seen as a milestone for the Boy Scouts, a symbol of traditional America. More than 1,400 volunteer leaders from across the country voted, with more than 60 percent approving a measure that said no youth may be denied membership ‘‘on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone.’’
The top national leaders of the Boy Scouts had urged the change in the face of vehement opposition from conservative parents and volunteers, some of whom said they would quit the organization. But the decision also put the Scouts more in tune with the swift rise in public acceptance of homosexuality, especially among younger parents who are essential to the future of an institution that has been losing members for decades.
The policy change, effective January 2014, is unlikely to bring peace to the Boy Scouts as they struggle to keep a foothold in a swirling cultural landscape, ensuring continued lobbying and debate in the months and year to come. The group put off the even more divisive question of whether to allow openly gay adults and leaders, and those on both sides of the debate predicted that, with the resolution’s passage, the Boy Scouts would soon be forced to start allowing gay adults, whether by lawsuits or embarrassment at the twisted logic of forcing an Eagle Scout who turns 18 to quit.
Gay rights advocates called the decision a breakthrough but vowed to continue pressing the Scouts to allow gay members of all ages. Some conservative churches and parents said the Scouts were violating their oath to be ‘‘morally straight’’ and said they would drop out.
Still, for gay men who were forced out of Scouting and their allies, thousands of whom joined the push for change, the opening of membership was more than welcome.
“I’ve waited 13 years for this,’’ said Matt Comer, now 27, who was forced out of his troop at 14 after he started a Gay-Straight Alliance at his school. Since the fourth grade, he said Thursday, he had dreamed of becoming an Eagle Scout and was crushed when he was denied the chance.
‘‘Today we finally have some justice for me and others,’’ he said. ‘‘But gay youths will still be told they are no longer welcome when they turn 18.’’
Leaders of the conservative faction predicted that the Boy Scouts will soon be forced by lawsuits to allow openly gay leaders and accused the top leaders of ignoring the beliefs of their members.
‘‘The fallout from this is going to be tremendous,’’ predicted Robert Schwarzwalder, a senior vice president of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group, and a father of two Scouts in Northern Virginia. ‘‘I think there will be a loss of hundreds of thousands of boys and parents.’’
GLAAD, a gay rights group that has campaigned for change during the last year, said it would keep up pressure on the Boy Scouts on the leadership issue. ‘‘We’ll continue urging corporate donors and public officials to withhold their support,’’ said Richard Ferraro, the group’s vice president for communications.
The UPS Foundation, Merck, the Intel Foundation, and many local United Ways and city agencies have already ended financing for the Scouts because its policies violated their own nondiscrimination guidelines.
For the last year, the organization has been engulfed by the culture war.
In a closed meeting of the assembled delegates Wednesday night, the top three leaders of the Boy Scouts — Wayne Brock, the paid chief executive, Wayne Perry, the volunteer president who is a corporate leader from Washington state, and Tico Perez, the volunteer commissioner and a consultant in Florida — made a strong plea to allow gay youths, saying the goal of Scouting was to reach as many boys as possible, according to people who attended.
“This is not about what’s legal but what’s compassionate, caring, and kind,’’ Brock reportedly said. No similar proposal to allow gay adults was on the agenda and the executives have said little about how they made the distinction. But in surveys this spring, many parents and volunteers around the country said they were against the idea of openly gay Scout leaders.
The vote was a bittersweet one for David Knopp, 86, who spent much of his life in Scouting as a boy, as a professional staff member, and later as a volunteer with a council in Connecticut. He had tried to keep his sexual orientation a secret but one day, he said, two Scout officials said, ‘‘We found out you are a homosexual’’ and forced him out.
‘’I see this as a good step but with a lot of misgivings,’’ he said of the limited opening to gays.