After years of contention, the Boy Scouts of America’s executive board voted Monday to end its blanket ban on gay adult leaders.

“For far too long, this issue has divided and distracted us,” BSA President Robert Gates said in a videotaped message. “Now it’s time to unite behind our shared belief in the extraordinary power of scouting to be a force for good.”

Local scouting officials said they welcomed the news, noting that the Pine Tree Council representing the 10 southern Maine counties has had a non-discrimination policy for adult leaders since 2012.

“From our standpoint, it’s kind of like welcome to the club,” Assistant Scout Executive Matt Randall said of the national vote. The 2012 vote, he said, “was a local decision to create a more inclusive environment.”

Cubmaster Kelly McDonald said he thought the decision would help boost membership. In his four years of leading Pack 97 in Portland, the issue of having a gay leader hasn’t come up, but the policy has kept some families away.

“I have had families come to me and say their boys would love to be in scouts, but this policy has prevented them from participating,” he said. “We are very excited about this change.”

Maine has about 13,000 youth members, and about 3,500 adult volunteers.

Under the new policy, local troops and councils will be permitted to decide for themselves whether they will allow openly gay volunteer leaders. More than 70 percent of the 100,000 Boy Scout troops nationally are run by faith-based groups, many from orthodox communities including Mormons, Catholics, Southern Baptists and Muslims who do not accept gay equality.

Randall said about half of the 143 southern Maine troops are affiliated with churches.

Monday’s vote comes two years after the BSA lifted its ban on openly gay youth, a dramatic step for an organization whose leaders went to the Supreme Court to fight accepting openly gay members. But the march toward full equality for gay and lesbian Americans has unfolded with unusual speed, with 38 states, including Maine, accepting gay marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage. Polls have shown acceptance of gay equality rising sharply among the young.

Meanwhile, the Boy Scouts experienced a 7 percent drop in membership since lifting its ban on openly gay youth. At the time, 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.

Portland state Rep. Dianne Russell tweeted out a “Way to go Boy Scouts! Glad you finally caught up to the #girlscouts,” referring to the Girl Scouts’ long-standing anti-discrimination policy.

The 80-member National Executive Board approved the policy change 45-12 via conference call late Monday.

“This change allows Scouting’s members and parents to select local units, chartered to organizations with similar beliefs, that best meet the needs of their families,” the organization said in a statement. “This change also respects the right of religious chartered organizations to choose adult volunteer leaders whose beliefs are consistent with their own.”

The move comes after Gates, the former Defense Secretary, said he would favor ending the ban.

At the Scouts annual national meeting in May, Gates said the long-standing ban wasn’t sustainable and that it made the Scouts a target for lawsuits that they would likely lose.

Rigidly maintaining the ban, he said, “will be the end of us as a national movement.”

But church-state legal experts said the decision will likely just shift the controversy and ongoing legal battles from the national group to local troops and councils as volunteers barred from participating file suit.

“It’s changing the target (of litigation) because now it will be all about the local, not the national,” said Douglas Laycock, a prominent religious liberty scholar at the University of Virginia. “It changes the dynamic a lot. It makes it more informal, less visible.”

The BSA’s top leaders have 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.

“It’s hard for me to believe, in the long term, that the Boy Scouts will allow religious groups to have the freedom to choose their own leaders,” said the Rev. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“In recent years I have seen a definite cooling on the part of Baptist churches toward the Scouts,” Moore said. “This will probably bring that cooling to a freeze.”

Under the new policy:

Prospective employees of the national organization could no longer be denied a staff position on the basis of sexual orientation.

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.

There would be no change in the long-standing requirement that youth and adult Scout members profess a “duty to God.”

McDonald said the earlier policy gave him pause as a parent.

“I’m an Eagle Scout and when I first considered scouts for my son I was quite hesitant, but I talked to the cubmaster and he assured me that they were very welcoming,” he said. “I am really excited to have more people come join us now that this policy doesn’t stand in the way.”

Randall agreed: “My own experience is that families that I know that have shied away from Boy Scouts, not because they don’t want to be part of Boy Scouts, it’s that they can’t reconcile their own belief system with the membership policies.”

McDonald, a lawyer, said that he personally felt that the national board should have gone further and not carved out exemptions for some units.

“They should not allow any units to discriminate,” he said. “We’re not all the way there, but I’m glad we’re moving in the right direction.”

The Boy Scouts’ national membership is about 2.4 million boys and about 1 million adults.

The Associated Press and The Washington Post contributed to this report.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.