WASHINGTON — The Boy Scouts of America officially ended its decades-old ban on gay troop leaders on Monday, a historic but controversial shift after years of legal wrangling and internal strife.
The decision was approved by 79 percent of the organisation's 80-member national executive board. It was effective immediately.
A smaller governing committee unanimously voted to lift the prohibition earlier this month.
Despite removing the national ban on gay adults in scouting, the BSA will still allow individual chapters to continue to bar gay adults from being Scout leaders or employees if hiring them would violate the unit's religious beliefs.
"This change allows Scouting's members and parents to select local units, chartered to organisations with similar beliefs, that best meet the needs of their families," the BSA said on its website.
"This change also respects the right of religious chartered organisations to choose adult volunteer leaders whose beliefs are consistent with their own."
Gay rights groups and religious organisations hailed the move.
Scouts for Equality, which fought to end discrimination against gays in the Boy Scouts since 2012, welcomed the "beginning of a new chapter."
"As of this vote, the Boy Scouts of America is an organisation that is looking forward, not back," said the group's executive director Zach Wahls.
Human Rights Campaign criticised the exemption for church-organised units, calling for full gay inclusion for employees and volunteers.
"Including an exemption for troops sponsored by religious organisations undermines and diminishes the historic nature of today's decision," said HRC president Chad Griffin.
"Discrimination should have no place in the Boy Scouts, period."
The Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism also expressed disappointment at the exemption.
It said it would review its 2001 recommendation that Reform congregations stop housing and withdraw their sponsorship of BSA troops due the ban on gay scouts and scout leaders.
With some 2.5 million members and around a million adult volunteers, the Boy Scouts had been beset by internal fighting and legal wrangling, amid defiant moves by some scout councils to flout the national BSA ban and allow gay scoutmasters.
But about 70 percent of Boy Scout chapters are run by church groups, complicating efforts to reform the ban.
The Mormon Church -- also known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- runs the greatest number of BSA chapters.
Earlier this month, it issued a statement after the executive board vote asserting that it "has always had the right to select Scout leaders who adhere to moral and religious principles that are consistent with our doctrines and beliefs."
The organisation said, however, that the move lifting the ban was inevitable, given US social and political changes of recent years.
In May, BSA national president Robert Gates warned at its annual meeting that the courts could force the organisation to change its membership policies if it failed to do so of its own accord.
"We must all understand that this will probably happen sooner rather than later," said Gates, a former CIA director and defense secretary.
Gates was himself an avid scout as a youngster, having attained the coveted top rank of Eagle Scout.
Founded in 1910, the Boy Scouts describes itself as a "values-based youth development organisation."
Through camping, hiking and skills building activities, the BSA "provides a program for young people that builds character, trains them in the responsibilities of participating citizenship, and develops personal fitness."
The BSA in January 2014 officially began accepting gay youths into their ranks, after a more than two-decade-long ban.
A few months earlier, in May 2013, the Boy Scouts' national council voted to no longer deny membership to youths on the basis of sexual orientation, but it retained its ban on gay and lesbian adult Scout leaders. — AFP