NEW YORK (AP) — The Boy Scouts of America on Monday ended its blanket ban on gay adult leaders while allowing church-sponsored Scout units to maintain the exclusion for religious reasons.

The new policy, aimed at easing a controversy that has embroiled the Boy Scouts for years, takes effect immediately. It was approved by the BSA's National Executive Board on a 45-12 vote during a closed-to-the-media teleconference.

"For far too long this issue has divided and distracted us," said the BSA's president, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. "Now it's time to unite behind our shared belief in the extraordinary power of Scouting to be a force for good."

Initial reactions to the decision from groups on both sides suggested the issue would remain divisive.

The Mormon church, which sponsors more Scout units that any other organization, said it was "deeply troubled" by the decision. Church officials suggested they would look into the possibility of forming their own organization to replace Boy Scouts.

"The admission of openly gay leaders is inconsistent with the doctrines of the Church and what have traditionally been the values of the Boy Scouts of America," said a statement from Mormon headquarters in Salt Lake City.

In contrast, the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT-rights organization, said the Boy Scouts should not allow church-sponsored units to continue excluding gays.

"Discrimination should have no place in the Boy Scouts, period," said the HRC's president, Chad Griffin. "BSA officials should now demonstrate true leadership and begin the process of considering a full national policy of inclusion."

Gates foreshadowed Monday's action on May 21, when he told the Scouts' national meeting that the long-standing ban on participation by openly gay adults was no longer sustainable. He said the ban was likely to be the target of lawsuits that the Scouts likely would lose.

Two weeks ago, the new policy was approved unanimously by the BSA's 17-member National Executive Committee. It would allow local Scout units to select adult leaders without regard to sexual orientation — a stance that several Scout councils have already adopted in defiance of the official national policy.

Under the BSA's new policy, 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.