Michael Prengler / Reuters
Pascal Tessier, 16, from Kensington, Md., an openly gay scout who was facing expulsion from the Boy Scouts, answers questions from the media while his mother, Tracie Felker, looks on.
GRAPEVINE, Texas -- The Boy Scouts of America voted Thursday to end its controversial policy banning gay kids and teens from joining one of the nation's most popular youth organizations, ditching membership guidelines that had roiled the group in recent years.
Over 61 percent of Scouting's National Council of 1,232 delegates from across the country voted to lift the ban, BSA officials said. The final tally was 757 yes votes, to 475 no (another 168 delegates did not cast a ballot since they were not present at the meeting). The ban on gay leaders was not voted on and will remain in place.
"This resolution today dealt with youth. We have not changed our adult membership standards. They have served us well for the last 100 years. Those were not on the table," said Tico Perez, BSA national commissioner.
The policy change will go into effect Jan. 1, 2014, "allowing the Boy Scouts of America the transition time needed to communicate and implement this policy to its approximately 116,000 Scouting units," the BSA said in a statement.
But the outcome of the historic ballot is not going to end the debate: Some opponents on the right said they would pull their sponsorships of packs and troops, and parents threatened to take their boys out of Scouting; LGBT activists said the policy change doesn't go far enough because gay adults still wouldn't be allowed to participate.
Ohio mom Jennifer Tyrrell, who was ousted in April 2012 as den leader of her son's Tiger Cub pack because she is a lesbian, said it was a step forward even though she wouldn't benefit from the change.
"I am so excited because even though it doesn't affect me, it is what we've been working for," she said. "And I think it's an indication of what's to come."
Tyrrell, who reignited the conversation about discrimination in the Boy Scouts after her ouster, said her son Cruz wouldn't return to the Boy Scouts until all families were included.
"One day, we'll be back, and I'm not going to stop until we're there," she said, becoming teary-eyed as she spoke about not being able to participate. "Tomorrow, we're going to start the next phase, and I'm ready."
Pascal Tessier, a gay 16-year-old from Kensington, Md., felt hopeful after the vote. He believes he can get his Eagle rank — the Scouts' highest honor — in the fall.
Ending a process that started four months ago, Boy Scout leaders have voted to allow gay scouts but the ban on gay adult leaders remains in place. NBC's Pete Williams reports.
"There are a lot of things going through my head," he said. "The initial reaction is ecstatic because I can go home and tell everyone that I'm still a Boy Scout."
But he said he also felt bad for gay leaders.
"They don't get to feel the same thing," he said. "I feel guilty ... I've promised myself I'm going to return the favor to them. Helping do whatever I have to do to get full inclusion of both youth and adults."
Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout son of lesbian moms and founder of Scouts for Equality, said it was “hard to overstate” how important it was for the Boy Scouts to even consider weakening the policy.
“Even though I think that there will probably still be a few folks who choose to walk away … I think this is the beginning of the rebound of Scouting in America,” he said.
Boy Scouts leader on the passing of a resolution to lift the ban on gay youth.
The ban on gay Scouts has been the subject of much soul-searching in the century-old organization – from local troops and councils to national board meetings. The dispute was even heard by the Supreme Court, which said 13 years ago that as a private membership organization, the BSA was free to decide who it would admit.
Last summer, the Boy Scouts reaffirmed their anti-gay policy after a two-year examination by a committee. Since then, some local chapters had been pushing for a reconsideration.
More than 70 percent of Boy Scout units are sponsored by religious groups, and this compromise proposal has split them. One of the Southern Baptist Church leaders, Dr. Frank Page, last week implored the Boy Scouts not to change the policy. But The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints – the BSA's biggest charter partner – had given tacit endorsement to the plan.
BSA President Wayne Perry said the vote came after an "extensive," "exhaustive," and "respectful" dialogue among the members of the organization.
"It's a very difficult decision for a lot of people, but we are moving forward together," he said. "Our vision is to serve every kid."
The stakes are huge for the BSA, which boasts nearly 3 million youth participants.
"This has been a challenging chapter in our history," said Wayne Brock, the BSA's chief Scout executive. "Our goal through all of this was to put the kids first."
Lm Otero / AP
Terri Hall, left, of San Antonio, Texas, stands with her son Nathaniel Hall, 8, as they rally near where the Boy Scouts of America are holding their annual meeting.
Rusty Tisdale, assistant Scoutmaster for a troop in Ellisville, Miss., hopes there is a local option that would allow the decision on gay members to be made at the troop level. Otherwise, he will pull his kids.
"I'm not happy as a parent," Tisdale emailed to NBC News. "The gay activist isn't happy and will not be until homosexuals can be leaders, etc. So there will be more pressure, and more fighting, And more acquiescence. No thanks."
"There are other activities for my kids to do," he added. "There are other organizations that I can support with my time and money."
The decision didn't come easily, according to Perez, the BSA national commissioner.
"There were divisions about how to serve kids," he said. "If we have disagreement, if we have discomfort, we are going to talk through it. America needs Scouting."
He added, "Our singular focus moving forward is serving more kids in Scouting, and we believe this resolution is going to do that."
Tony Gutierrez / AP
John Stemberger, an Eagle Scout and Florida-based attorney, speaks out Thursday in Grapevine, Texas, during a news conference against the Boy Scouts of American decision allowing openly gay scouts to participate in Scouting.
John Stemberger, from Orlando, Fla., has two sons in the Boy Scouts. He started a group opposing the change called "On My Honor." After the decision was announced, he said he and his sons — who have yet to reach Eagle Scout — were leaving the Boy Scouts.
"Sex and politics just have no place in the Boy Scouts of America," Stemberger said in Grapevine. "The entire process was disappointing."
David Metcalf, 55, and his son Sean Metcalf, a 13-year-old Star Scout with Troop 226, from nearby McKinney, Texas, came to Grapevine to hear the results of the vote. The troop is chartered by Peach, a Christian homeschool organization.
"We're very disappointed," David said. "I will compare it to a funeral."
Sean, wearing his Boy Scouts uniform, said he didn't know if he could remain a Scout.
"I hope I can continue," he said. "It depends if my parents feel safe to let me stay."
If you are a current or former member of the Boy Scouts and would like to share your thoughts on how your troop, pack or council is handling the change in the membership policy, you can email the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org. We may use some comments for a follow-up story, so please specify if your remarks can be used and provide your name, hometown, age, Boy Scout affiliation and a phone number.
NBC News' Elizabeth Chuck contributed to this report.
This story was originally published on Thu May 23, 2013 6:43 PM EDT