IRVING, Texas (Reuters) - The Boy Scouts of America on Wednesday delayed until May a vote on whether to end a controversial ban on gay members, drawing praise and rebukes from the two sides of a heated debate that has drawn in politicians as well as parents.
Board members for the youth organization, which turns 103 on Friday, had been expected to vote on the matter at a meeting on Wednesday. The Boy Scouts upheld the ban just last year amid sharp criticism from gay rights groups.
"After careful consideration and extensive dialogue within the scouting family, along with comments from those outside the organization, the volunteer officers of the Boy Scouts of America's National Executive Board concluded that due to the complexity of this issue, the organization needs time for a more deliberate review of its membership policy," the Boy Scouts said in a statement.
The national executive board, which lists more than 70 members, has been meeting privately since Monday at a hotel near Boy Scouts headquarters in Irving, Texas.
A coalition of 33 councils that represent about one-fifth of all youth members had asked the board to delay the vote.
The Boy Scouts touched off fierce lobbying by groups both for and against changing the policy when it said late last month that it was considering removing the national restriction based on sexual orientation and leaving the decision to local chapters.
Reaction to the delay announced on Wednesday was swift.
"This is no doubt a major victory for moral values, but it is a temporary one," said Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values, a group that helped organize a vigil supporting the ban on Wednesday at Boy Scouts headquarters.
Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout who has two lesbian mothers and is the founder of Scouts for Equality, called the delay "an abdication of responsibility.
"By postponing this decision," Wahls said in a statement, "the BSA has caved to those who argue that their anti-gay attitudes trump basic scouting values of kindness, courtesy and bravery. Scouting was built on a foundation of respect and dignity."
The Boy Scouts, in its statement, said the board will continue its consultations with other scouting representatives, and the approximately 1,400 voting members of the national council will take action on a membership standards resolution in May.
President Barack Obama has said he supports lifting the ban, while Texas Governor Rick Perry, an Eagle Scout, has said he favors retaining the current policy.
More than 22,800 people had registered comments with the Boy Scouts on the group's Facebook page from its announcement that it was considering lifting the ban until Wednesday's statement.
A national poll released by Quinnipiac University on Wednesday found a solid majority of registered voters, 55 percent to 33 percent, favored ending the ban.
Men supported lifting the ban by 49 percent to 39 percent and women by 61 percent to 27 percent, according to the poll, which surveyed 1,772 registered voters from January 30 to February 4 and had a 2.3 percentage points margin of error.
Gay rights activists, who have said it would not go far enough to lift the national ban but permit local bans to stand, said they were disappointed by the decision to put off a vote.
"A scout is supposed to be brave, and the Boy Scouts failed to be brave today," Jennifer Tyrrell, a lesbian from Ohio who was forced out as a den leader, said in a statement. "The Boy Scouts had the chance to help countless young people and devoted parents, but they've failed us yet again."
Tyrrell and other activists delivered more than 1.4 million signatures to the Boy Scouts on Monday on petitions seeking an end to the policy.
The Boy Scouts won a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2000 that upheld its right to ban gays, but the organization has come under increasing public pressure in recent years from activists.
Youth membership in the organization, which prides itself on teaching boys life skills such as camping and leadership, has declined 21 percent to less than 2.7 million since 2000.
Gay rights activists have also been pressing corporations, including UPS, Merck and Intel, to withhold contributions to the Boy Scouts while the ban stands.
The Boy Scouts has also faced criticism for keeping from public view decades of reports on child sex abuse in the organization. It released thousands of pages of files covering 1965 to 1985 in October under a court order.
Two board members have said publicly they support a change: Jim Turley, chairman and chief executive of Ernst & Young, and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson. A spokeswoman for Turley and spokesman for Stephenson said on Wednesday they declined to comment on the board's decision to delay a vote until May.
(Additional reporting by Dan Burns, Dan Trotta and David Bailey; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Cynthia Osterman, Nick Zieminski, Andrew Hay, Leslie Adler)