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SALT LAKE CITY — The Boy Scouts of America voted Thursday to open its membership to all boys, regardless of sexual orientation.
Scouting officials announced that the organization's national council adopted a new membership policy resolution by a vote of 61 percent to 38 percent. The resolution changes a long-standing policy barring openly gay youths from participating in the Boy Scouts of America. The new policy will take effect Jan. 1, 2014.
"While people have different opinions about this policy, we can all agree that kids are better off when they are in Scouting," Scouting officials said in a prepared statement. "Going forward, our Scouting family will continue to focus on reaching and serving youth in order to help them grow into good, strong citizens. America’s youth need Scouting, and by focusing on the goals that unite us, we can continue to accomplish incredible things for young people and the communities we serve.”
There is no change in the policy concerning Scout leaders and volunteers. The BSA says it does not ask would-be volunteers about their sexual orientation but does not permit openly gay adults from serving in volunteer or leadership positions.
The resolution reiterates that "any sexual conduct, whether homosexual or heterosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting." It was submitted to the national council with the unanimous support of the Boy Scouts of America's Executive Committee.
The vote on the new policy consisted of about 1,400 volunteer leaders from regional councils of the Boy Scouts of America, according to Scouting officials. More than 40 Utahns participated in the vote, representing the state's three Scouting councils: the Great Salt Lake Council, Trapper Trails Council and Utah National Parks Council.
LDS Church response
Following the announcement of the vote, the LDS Church issued a statement emphasizing that sexual orientation is not a disqualifying factor in youth participation in church-sponsored activities, including Scouting.
"The church’s long-established policy for participation in activities is stated in the basic instructional handbook used by lay leaders of the church: “young men … who agree to abide by church standards” are “welcomed warmly and encouraged to participate," the church statement says.
"This policy applies to church-sponsored Scout units. Sexual orientation has not previously been—and is not now—a disqualifying factor for boys who want to join Latter-day Saint Scout troops. Willingness to abide by standards of behavior continues to be our compelling interest."
The LDS Church is the largest sponsor of Scouting, with more than 430,000 Scouts currently registered in various Scouting programs. According to BSA statistics, 38 percent of all BSA Scouting units are affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"As in the past, the church will work with BSA to harmonize what Scouting has to offer with the varying needs of our young men."
The meeting in Grapevine, Texas, drew demonstrations from groups on both sides of the issue. On My Honor, a coalition of parents, Scoutmasters and donors opposed to opening membership to openly gay youths, posted a call for prayer on its Facebook page and website Thursday.
An online petition by Scouts For Equality gathered more than 1.8 million signatures. Wayne Perry, president of the Boy Scouts of America, penned an editorial for USA Today advocating for the inclusion of all young men into Scouting regardless of sexual orientation.
"Some have voiced concerns that this proposal could put children at risk of being abused," Perry wrote. "The BSA makes no connection between sexual abuse and homosexuality. The nation's leading experts agree."
Brett Graham, vice president of fund development for the Great Salt Lake Council, said before the vote was taken that independent of the national council's decision, he hoped Thursday's meeting would provide some resolution on the issue.
The controversy surrounding the Boy Scouts' membership policies has taken away from the many good things happening in Scouting around the country, Graham said.
"This is a distracting issue," he said. "The reality is that this doesn't affect that many boys or that many leaders."
Graham, who did not participate in Thursday's vote, said he had not researched the proposal enough to have a position on it. But he said the Boy Scouts would move forward and continue to provide life skills training to the country's youths.
"In the end, we'll manage through it," he said. "The reality is, the good that is done with the Boy Scouts happens at the troop level. It doesn't happen at the national level."
Jason Dautel, a Salt Lake resident and Eagle Scout, started a petition on Change.org urging members of the Great Salt Lake Council to reject the Boy Scouts policy of denying membership to openly gay individuals.
The petition is one of more than 100 directed at local Scouting councils around the country, and Dautel, a former member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said Salt Lake City needed its own petition due to the number of LDS Church-sponsored Scouting units in the state.
Dautel also said he was motivated to begin the petition — which gathered more than 1,500 signatures — after seeing the results of a survey conducted by the Great Salt Lake Council that showed widespread opposition to changing the membership policy among local Scouting leaders.
"I thought it was important that the Salt Lake Council hear that not everybody agrees with that," he said.
Dautel said the decision to allow all youths to participate in Scouting is an important step toward total participation by gay individuals. But he said the continued exclusion of openly gay adults sends a dangerous message that gay Scouts are no longer welcome in the organization when they turn 18.
In the statement released by the national Scouting organization, officials suggested it is unlikely that further changes will be made in the near future.
"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. As the National Executive Committee just completed a lengthy review process, there are no plans for further review on this matter."
Rick Barnes, scout executive for the Great Salt Lake Council, said local leaders remain focused on providing the nation's foremost program of character development and values-based leadership training to Utah's youth.
"I believe this update to our policy will allow all kids who sincerely want to be a part of Scouting to experience this life-changing program while remaining true to the long-standing virtues of Scouting," he said in a prepared statement. "We believe good people can disagree and still work together to accomplish great things for youth. Going forward, we will work to stay focused on that which unites us."
Contributing: Andrew Wittenberg