NEW YORK (AP) -- The Boy Scouts of America has ended its blanket ban on gay adult leaders but will allow church-sponsored Scout units to maintain the exclusion for religious reasons.
The new policy, aimed at easing a controversy that has embroiled the Boy Scouts for years, takes effect immediately. It was approved Monday by the BSA's National Executive Board on a 45-12 vote during a closed-to-the-media teleconference.
"For far too long this issue has divided and distracted us," the BSA's president, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, said. "Now it's time to unite behind our shared belief in the extraordinary power of Scouting to be a force for good."
Initial reactions to the decision from groups on both sides suggested the issue would remain divisive.
The Mormon church, which sponsors more Scout units that any other organization, said it was "deeply troubled" by the decision. Church officials suggested they would look into the possibility of forming their own organization to replace Boy Scouts.
"The admission of openly gay leaders is inconsistent with the doctrines of the Church and what have traditionally been the values of the Boy Scouts of America," said a statement from Mormon headquarters in Salt Lake City.
In contrast, the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT-rights organization, said the Boy Scouts should not allow church-sponsored units to continue excluding gays.
"Discrimination should have no place in the Boy Scouts, period," said the HRC's president, Chad Griffin. "BSA officials should now demonstrate true leadership and begin the process of considering a full national policy of inclusion."
Gates foreshadowed Monday's action on May 21, when he told the Scouts' national meeting that the long-standing ban on participation by openly gay adults was no longer sustainable. He said the ban was likely to be the target of lawsuits that the Scouts likely would lose.
Two weeks ago, the new policy was approved unanimously by the BSA's 17-member National Executive Committee. It would allow local Scout units to select adult leaders without regard to sexual orientation - a stance that several Scout councils have already adopted in defiance of the official national policy.
In 2013, after heated internal debate, the BSA decided to allow openly gay youth as scouts, but not gay adults as leaders. Several denominations that collectively sponsor close to half of all Scout units - including the Roman Catholic church, the Mormon church and the Southern Baptist Convention - have been apprehensive about ending the ban on gay adults.
The BSA's top leaders pledged to defend the right of any church-sponsored units to continue excluding gays as adult volunteers. But that assurance has not satisfied some conservative church leaders.
"In recent years I have seen a definite cooling on the part of Baptist churches toward the Scouts," said the Rev. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "This will probably bring that cooling to a freeze."
A more nuanced response came from the National Catholic Committee on Scouting, which expressed interest in maintaining its ties with the BSA, but also voiced concerns. Notably, it conveyed a reluctance to accept participation by anyone who engaged in sexual conduct outside of a heterosexual marriage.
Under the BSA's new policy, gay leaders who were previously removed from Scouting because of the ban would have the opportunity to reapply for volunteer positions. If otherwise qualified, a gay adult would be eligible to serve as a Scoutmaster or unit leader.
Gates, who became the BSA's president in May 2014, said at the time that he personally would have favored ending the ban on gay adults, but he opposed any further debate after the Scouts' policymaking body upheld the ban. In May, he said that recent events "have confronted us with urgent challenges I did not foresee and which we cannot ignore."
He cited an announcement by the BSA's New York City chapter in early April that it had hired Pascal Tessier, the nation's first openly gay Eagle Scout, as a summer camp leader. Gates also cited broader gay-rights developments and warned that rigidly maintaining the ban "will be the end of us as a national movement."
The BSA's right to exclude gays was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000. But since then, the policy has prompted numerous major corporations to suspend charitable donations to the Scouts and strained relations with some municipalities.
More recently, the BSA faced a civil rights investigation in New York and lawsuits in other states over the ban.
Kenneth Upton, a lawyer for the LGBT-rights group Lambda Legal, questioned whether the BSA's new policy to let church-sponsored units continue to exclude gay adults would be sustainable.
"There will be a period of time where they'll have some legal protection," Upton said. "But that doesn't mean the lawsuits won't keep coming. ... They will become increasingly marginalized from the direction society is going."
Like several other major youth organizations, the Boy Scouts have experienced a membership decline in recent decades. Current membership, according to the BSA, is about 2.4 million boys and about 1 million adults.
After the 2013 decision to admit gay youth, some conservatives split from the BSA to form a new group, Trail Life USA, which has created its own ranks, badges and uniforms. The group claims a membership of more than 25,000 youths and adults.
Associated Press writer Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.