By Marice Richter
IRVING, Texas (Reuters) - The Boy Scouts of America on Wednesday delayed to May a vote on whether to end a longstanding controversial ban on gay participants, giving a membership deeply divided by the possible change more time to air their concerns.
Board members for the private youth organization, which turns 103 years old 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.
The Boy Scouts touched off fierce lobbying by groups both for and against changing the policy when it said on January 28 that it was considering removing a national restriction based on sexual orientation and leaving the decision to local chapters.
Even President Barack Obama, who favors lifting the ban, and Texas Governor Rick Perry, an Eagle Scout who supports the ban, weighed in ahead of the Boy Scout's national executive board meeting this week near its headquarters in Irving, Texas.
"In the past two weeks, Scouting has received an outpouring of feedback from the American public," the Boy Scouts said in a statement that noted it had considered "extensive dialogue" within the membership and outside comments.
The board has concluded that "due to the complexity of this issue, the organization needs time for a more deliberate review of its membership policy," the statement added.
The Boy Scouts said the roughly 1,400 voting members of its national council will take action on a membership standards resolution at its national meeting in May.
A coalition of 33 faith-based councils that represent about one-fifth of all youth members in the Boy Scouts had asked the board to delay the vote. Reaction to the delay 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 organized a vigil supporting the ban on Wednesday and the parent of a Scout.
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."
AMERICAN VOTERS FAVOR LIFTING BAN: POLL
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.
The debate about the ban follows a series of moves recognizing gay rights in the United States in the past year.
The U.S. military now permits gay and lesbian members to serve openly, and residents in Maine, Maryland and Washington state voted to approve gay marriage in November, the first states to do so through the ballot box.
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 United Parcel Service Inc, Merck & Co Inc and Intel Corp, to withhold contributions to the Boy Scouts while the ban stands.
The Boy Scouts also face 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 Inc 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 and Lisa Shumaker)