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In an emotionally charged vote Thursday, the Boy Scouts of America lifted its ban on gay youth starting next January, the latest sign of a shift in American attitudes toward gays and lesbians.

After months of debate in local districts, more than 61 percent of the Boy Scouts national council approved a resolution overturning the prohibition on openly gay boys.

Gay adults will remain barred from serving as Scout leaders in a fiercely contested compromise that some warned could fracture the organization and lead to mass defections of members and donors.

Herb Williams, president of the Boy Scouts' Redwood Empire Council, which includes Sonoma and Mendocino counties, called the vote "a historic moment in our country."

"The majority of us together felt it was time, and I'm just happy that I was a part of it," Williams said.

The vote was greeted with loud applause at the large conference center in suburban Dallas where the annual meeting was held, Williams said.

However, the outcome will not end the bitter debate over the Scouts' membership policy.

Liberal Scout leaders — while supporting the proposal to accept gay youth — have made clear they want the ban on gay adults and atheists lifted as well.

"I think there's still a long ways to go," said Steven Cozza, an Eagle Scout from Petaluma who began to speak out on the issue when he was 12, eventually forming an advocacy group, Scouting For All.

"This is a victory against bigotry and ignorance," the 28-year-old Cozza said. "But on the other hand, it left out half of the puzzle by still discriminating against adult Scout leaders" and atheists, he said.

In contrast, conservatives with the Scouts — including some churches that sponsor Scout units — wanted to continue excluding gay youths. Some have threatened to defect if the ban were lifted.

John Stemberger, president of the conservative Florida Family Policy Council, said opponents planned to meet in Louisville next month to discuss forming an alternate youth group "that does have timeless values." While standing at a press conference in his Scout uniform, he announced, "This will be the last time I wear this uniform."

"We are deeply saddened," said Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's executive committee. "Homosexual behavior is incompatible with the principles enshrined in the Scout oath and Scout law."

Some Scout participants on the North Coast are also troubled by the change, Williams suggested.

"I've had people come to me and say they may consider it (leaving the Scouts)," Williams said.

He would not say what individuals or troops had voiced concerns. There are 127 Boy Scout troops and Explorer units in the Redwood Empire Council, which oversees nearly 2,400 Scouts on the North Coast.

Williams said he hoped local troops opposed to the policy change would not act hastily.

"I want everybody to take time to think about it before they make their decision," Williams said.

Last year, the Redwood Empire Council board unanimously approved a statement declaring, in part, that the regional group "does not practice or support any form of unlawful discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation or political persuasion."

Shelters for Pawnee fire evacuees

Lower Lake High School, 9430 Lake St., Lower Lake, is the official shelter established for people evacuating from the Pawnee fire. It is equipped to handle animals.

The Clearlake Oaks Moose Lodge, 15900 E. Highway 20, Clearlake Oaks, is not authorized by the Office of Emergency Services but is also sheltering fire evacuees, mostly people in campers and RVs who want their animals with them.

There is an authorized Lake County animal services station in an open field at Highway 53 and Anderson Ridge Road in Lower Lake.

The BSA could take a financial hit from Thursday's decision. Many Scout units in conservative areas feared their local donors would stop giving if the ban on gay youth were lifted, while many major corporate donors were likely to withhold donations if the ban had remained.

In January, the BSA executive committee suggested a plan to give sponsors of local Scout units the option of admitting gays as both youth members and adult leaders or continuing to exclude them. However, the plan won little praise, and the BSA changed course after assessing responses to surveys sent out starting in February to members of the Scouting community.

The BSA's overall "traditional youth membership" — Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Venturers — has dropped to about 2.6 million, compared with more than 4 million in peak years of the past. It also has about 1 million adult leaders and volunteers.

Of the more than 100,000 Scouting units in the U.S., 70 percent are chartered by religious institutions.

Those include liberal churches opposed to any ban on gays, but some of the largest sponsors are relatively conservative denominations that have previously supported the broad ban — notably the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Southern Baptist churches.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced in April that it was satisfied with the new proposal, and the National Catholic Committee on Scouting did not oppose it.

The BSA, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2010, has long excluded both gays and atheists.

Protests over the no-gays policy gained momentum in 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the BSA's right to exclude gays.

Scout units lost sponsorships by public schools and other entities that adhered to nondiscrimination policies, and several local Scout councils made public their displeasure with the policy.

Cozza, now a Petaluma real estate agent, said he still believed strongly in the national organization, but would continue to advocate for a more open membership policy.

His father, Scott Cozza, and another former troop leader, Dave Rice, were both ousted from their roles for their political activities. Steven Cozza said there are no hard feelings among the trio.

Dave Rice, who was in Dallas for the vote, couldn't be reached Thursday.

"If I didn't think it was a great organization I wouldn't have taken this stand," Steven Cozza said. "It's nice that they're

(Staff Writer Brett Wilkison, the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this story)

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