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The Boy Scouts of America threw open its ranks Thursday to gay Scouts but not gay Scout leaders, a contested compromise that some warned could fracture the organization and lead to mass defections of members and donors.

Of the roughly 1,400 voting members of the Boy Scouts’ National Council who cast ballots, 61 percent supported the proposal drafted by the governing Executive Committee. The policy change takes effect Jan. 1.

“While people have different opinions about this policy, we can all agree that kids are better off when they are in Scouting,” the group said after announcing the results at the council’s annual meeting in Grapevine, Texas, a Dallas suburb.

Former Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna, an Eagle Scout and longtime leader in local scouting groups, was in Texas for the vote and backed the new policy, along with other local leaders.

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“It’s such an important program for youth leadership that every youth should have access to it and every parent,” said McKenna, executive vice president of the Chief Seattle Council. “All of us who supported it are very happy it passed.”

Thursday’s vote will not end the bitter debate over the membership policy.

Liberal Scout leaders — while supporting the proposal to accept gay youngsters — have made clear they also want the ban on gay adults lifted.

“At some point we’ll address the adult policy. I don’t think for example that any parent should be excluded from leadership in their Scout troop,” McKenna said.

In contrast, conservatives with the Scouts — including some churches that sponsor Scout units — wanted to continue excluding gay youngsters, in some cases threatening to defect if the ban were lifted.

“We are deeply saddened,” Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee, said after learning of the vote. “Homosexual behavior is incompatible with the principles enshrined in the Scout oath and Scout law.”

The Assemblies of God, another conservative denomination, said the policy change “will lead to a mass exodus from the Boy Scout program.”

Outside the Chief Seattle Council’s offices Thursday afternoon, at a small rally organized by Scouts for Equality, there were cheers.

“It’s not everything but it’s the first step towards full equality,” said Jesse Pacem, 36, an Eagle Scout, who showed up at the rally in uniform, with his infant son in a carrier on his back.

Geoffrey McGrath, of Seattle, was gratified the Scouts finally changed the policy. Years ago, he was asked to chaperone a local group on a camping trip. The trip went great, he said. But the next year, when local Scout officials called again, he told them his “status had changed.”

“I’m still an Eagle Scout, but I’m gay,” he told them. “They said, ‘We’ll get back to you.’ ”

He was no longer welcome.

“It was the hardest thing about my coming out,” he said. “A lot of my self-image as a youth was wrapped up in Scouting. … It’s as important to me as the religion I was raised with.”

As the debate has raged nationally, the Chief Seattle Council was tight-lipped on the issue, declining to make any public statements — or even return reporters’ phone calls.

Pacem found that frustrating. Nonetheless, he believes the Seattle Council to be “silent heroes” in the change.

Brad Tilden, president of the Chief Seattle Council and CEO of Alaska Air Group, had an op-ed article published Wednesday in USA Today, urging the Scouts to accept not only gay youth, but adults, too.

“We need the Boy Scouts to serve all youth and include all leaders, irrespective of their sexual orientation,” he wrote. “The Boy Scouts must evolve as America has.”

Wayne Perry, president of the national Boy Scouts of America, is a former president of the Chief Seattle Council. He, too, published an op-ed piece this week supporting the rule change.

While Thursday’s vote was momentous in some ways, Pacem doubts it will change a whole lot at the troop level.

“I think the boys are well beyond this,” he said. What it will change is the attitude among adults, he predicted. “I think it gives a sigh of relief. Leaders don’t have to see their kids at risk of getting kicked out — right away.”

Opinions sought

Thursday’s vote followed what the Boy Scouts described as “the most comprehensive listening exercise in Scouting’s history” to gauge opinions within the community.

For gay youngsters 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, 27, who was forced out of his troop at age 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 the Boy Scouts will soon be forced by lawsuits to allow openly gay leaders, and they 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.”

“This great institution is going to be vitiated by the intrusion of a political agenda,” he said.

The Scouts could take a hit financially. Many Scout units in conservative areas fear local donors will stop giving.

But the ban also cost the organization. The UPS Foundation, Merck, the Intel Foundation, and many local United Ways and city agencies ended financing for the Scouts because its policies violated their own nondiscrimination guidelines.

The Boy Scouts of America executive committee suggested a plan in January to give sponsors of local Scout units the option of admitting gays as both youth members and adult leaders or continuing to exclude them. However, the plan won little praise, and the group changed course.

The proposal approved Thursday was seen as a compromise, and the Scouts stressed the organization would not condone sexual conduct by any Scout, gay or straight.

“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 group said.

Since the executive committee just completed a lengthy review, “there are no plans for further review on this matter,” the group added.

The organization’s overall “traditional youth membership” — Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Venturers — is about 2.6 million, compared with more than 4 million in past peak years. It also has about 1 million adult leaders and volunteers.

Information from The Associated Press and The New York Times is included in this report. Seattle Times staff reporters Maureen O’Hagan and Jim Brunner contributed to this report.

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