LOS ANGELES (AFP) - Leaders of the Boy Scouts of America agreed on Friday to admit gay youth members while maintaining a ban on adult leaders, drawing criticism from both homosexual groups and conservatives.
The executive committee of the organisation - which launched a review of the contentious issue in February - passed a resolution that must be approved at a national meeting in Texas next month to come into force.
"No youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone," said the text to update the BSA's "membership standards", seen as symbolising traditional US values.
But it reaffirmed existing rules for adult leaders of the movement.
The changes would go into effect from Jan 1.
"While the BSA does not proactively inquire about sexual orientation of employees, volunteers, or members, we do not grant membership to individuals who are open or avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the BSA," it said.
The 103-year-old institution, famed for its outdoor training programs and preaching of simple virtues, has close links to the country's conservative and religious heartlands.
However, the group, which is separate from the Girl Scouts of the USA and counts 2.6 million boys in its membership, has become increasingly unsure of its position in wider society.
Reaction to the resolution was swift, and not entirely positive.
The founder of conservative scouting body OnMyHonor.Net slammed what he said tried "to dodge criticism from gay activists but still creates a myriad of problems" for managing scouting activities.
"When it comes to young boys, parents should still have the final say on the issues of sexuality and politics. Allowing open homosexuality in the BSA injects both those topics right into the program," said Mr John Stemberger.
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination (GLAAD) said BSA had "failed its members, corporate sponsors, donors and the millions of Americans who agree that the time to end discrimination throughout scouting is now".
"By refusing to consider an end to its ban on gay and lesbian parents, the Boy Scouts have missed an opportunity to exercise leadership and usher the organisation back to relevancy, said GLAAD vice president Richard Ferraro.
A BSA statement issued with the resolution noted that in February, the movement "embarked on the most comprehensive listening exercise in its history to consider the impact of potential changes to its membership standards policy".
"This review created an outpouring of feedback from the Scouting family and the American public, from both those who agree with the current policy and those who support a change," it said.
The resolution will be considered at the BSA'S National Annual Meeting, scheduled for May 22-24 at the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center in Grapevine, Texas.
A Quinnipiac University poll released in February found that voters across the country are 55 per cent in favour of an end to the Scouts' ban, with only 33 per cent against.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2000 in favor of the Boy Scouts, saying that the prohibition against openly homosexual members was part of its right as a private organisation to free association.