The organization’s 1,400-member national council voted for the policy change, which will take effect January 1.
“No youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone,” says the approved resolution.
The BSA will maintain its ban on gay adult leaders.
The outcome follows months of intense debate among interest groups and within the ranks of Scouting itself.
It comes down to a single sentence at the end of a resolution: “No youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone.”
If the policy change is approved, the BSA will maintain its ban on openly gay adult leaders.
In February, the Boy Scouts’ national executive board postponed a vote on the issue and ordered a survey of its members. That survey showed an organization divided by age and, in some cases, by region.
While most adults in the Scouting community support the BSA’s current policy of “excluding open and avowed homosexuals, young parents and teens tend to oppose the policy.”
A BSA spokesman called the issue “among the most complex and challenging issues facing the BSA and society today.”
A recent Washington Post-ABC News Poll showed that 63% of Americans said they would support allowing gay youths to join the Boy Scouts.
But 61% of surveyed adult members said they support the current BSA policy, which excludes gay youths and adult leaders, the group said.
The vote comes more than a decade after the Supreme Court ruled that the organization has the right to keep out gays but also at a time of declining participation in the American institution.
Membership in Boy Scouts has declined by about a third since 1999. About 2.7 million people now participate nationwide.
The Boy Scouts relies on “chartered organizations” to provide facilities and sponsorship for the individual units.
More than 70% of troops are affiliated with a church or religious groups. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Catholic Church sponsor 43% of troops in the country.
In April, the Utah-based Mormons said, “while the church has not launched any campaign either to effect or prevent a policy change, we have followed the discussion and are satisfied that BSA has made a thoughtful, good-faith effort to address issues.”
The vote could have an impact in at least two Western states.
The heavily Mormon-populated states of Utah and Idaho reported that if a unilateral change in the policy were to be made, 97% of chartered organizations would probably leave the organization. The proposal that will be voted on Thursday would allow gay Scouts but forbid gay leaders, so it is unclear how many Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints churches would leave under those conditions.
The Catholic Church in the United States says it will strive to maintain ties with the BSA, regardless of the outcome.
“We would hope that the Boy Scouts of America will continue to provide young people a formative experience grounded in virtue and directed by service to God and others,” the National Catholic Committee on Scouting said in February.
A full picture of opinions was not captured in the survey, according to the BSA.
“When the survey process was originally announced, several chartered organizations, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Baptist church, and many parents asked that their youth members not be contacted as part of the survey.”
There’s been no shortage of lobbying on the issue, which will be taken up at the BSA’s annual meeting in Grapevine, Texas.
“This ban hurts kids and undermines key scouting values like helpfulness, friendliness and courteousness,” says the Human Rights Campaign. “It’s time to send a message of inclusion — not discrimination.”
James Dale, an Eagle Scout and former assistant troop leader who was kicked out of the Boy Scouts in 1990 because he is gay, criticized the proposal to continue the ban on adult leaders who are gay.
“The Boy Scouts have ruled with a tight fist and said that no gay member can be a part of the Boy Scouts, whether youth or adult,” he said. “So, likewise, if they are going to end this policy, they need to end it from the top down and say ‘we as the Boy Scouts of America are against discrimination.’ “
In an opinion piece for USA Today on Wednesday, BSA President Wayne Perry endorsed the policy change. “Parents, adults in the Scouting community and teens alike tend to agree that youth should not be denied the benefits of Scouting,” Perry wrote. “The resolution is not about adults; it is about what is best for young people.”
Conservative groups and some religious organizations have argued against making any change, saying it would dilute the Boy Scout message of morality and potentially destroy the organization.
The Family Research Council says the vote is “critically important to the future of the Scouts and the moral fiber of our nation.”
It urged people to visit OnMyHonor.net, a group opposing the policy change, to send their thoughts to Scout leaders and executives.
That website reposted an article by the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, who said the BSA was “at the brink.”
“For the last few decades, the Boy Scouts have had to fight battles with both secularists and homosexual activists,” wrote R. Albert Mohler Jr.
“How, exactly, are openly gay boys to be included in the activities of scouting? We are talking about boys who will now be expected to participate in everything from camping trips to travel with boys who are openly gay,” Mohler said. “Boys of these ages just might be the least equipped of all God’s creatures to deal with the complexities of the situation. Most parents are likely to decide that, all things considered, this is just not something they want imposed on their sons.”
President Barack Obama has been become outspoken in his support of gay rights and same-sex marriage.
When asked about the BSA policy in February, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama believes the Boy Scouts is a valuable organization that has helped educate and build character in American boys.
“He also, as you know, opposes discrimination in all forms. And as such, believes that gay Americans ought to be able to participate in the Boy Scouts. But in terms of the process of their evaluation of their policies, I don’t have a comment.”
If approved, the new BSA rules would take effect on January 1.
CNN’s Katia Hetter and Ed Payne contributed to this report.