By Marice Richter
DALLAS, Dec 31 (Reuters) - The Boy Scouts of America will allow openly gay scouts for the first time as of Jan. 1, with the century-old group facing conservative dissent from within for making the change and criticism from rights groups for not going far enough.
Some of those upset by the change have joined socially conservative groups such as start-up Trail Life USA, which says "any sexual activity outside the context of the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman is sinful before God" and runs counter to its core values.
The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) has also taken a financial hit, with some prominent corporate sponsors withdrawing support over the group's decision to keep in place a ban on homosexuals from serving as adult leaders.
This month, Lockheed Martin Corp, the top U.S. defense contractor, said it had halted donations to the Boy Scouts because of policies to exclude some gays from its ranks.
BSA spokesman Deron Smith said the group is still strong, with only a few breaking away from its ranks.
"We're pleased that the overwhelming majority of our members, families and chartered organizations remain committed to the Boy Scouts of America," Smith told Reuters.
Ahead of the change, BSA set up new guidelines on matters such as maintaining privacy when it comes to showering, dressing and sleeping arrangements.
The policy change was adopted in May 2013 by a majority vote of the BSA's National Council, lifting the ban on openly gay scouts in the face of intense social pressure.
It left in place a prohibition on gays serving as adult Scout leaders.
The Boy Scouts have a national membership of about 2.6 million youth and one million adult volunteers.
"The Boy Scouts of America does not have an agenda on the matter of sexual orientation," the Irving, Texas-based Boy Scouts said in its membership standard resolution.
"Scouting is a youth program, and any sexual conduct, whether homosexual or heterosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting," it said.
Boys can join the Cub scouts from the time they enter first grade, or about 7 years old and can advance through the Boy Scouts up until they reach their 18th birthday, the BSA says on its website.
The policy change was welcomed by some gay rights advocates as an important first step toward ending discrimination. They still want to see a lifting of the ban on gay leaders and other volunteers.
"We know that change won't happen overnight, and we're ready to do the work," Zach Wahls, co-founder of Scouts for Equality, told Reuters.
"We see the installment of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates as the BSA's next president as another reason to be optimistic about the future of Scouting."
As defense secretary, Gates supported President Barack Obama's withdrawal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that prevented gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.
The removal of the ban on gays could not happen soon enough for Pascal Tessier of Bethesda, Maryland, a 17-year-old high school senior who said he was denied his Eagle Scout Award because he is gay.
Tessier is slated to pick up the honor on Jan. 15 and would likely become the first openly gay scout to earn the highest rank in scouting.
"I love scouting and always have, so I really want to become an Eagle Scout," he said. (Writing by Jon Herskovitz; editing by Gunna Dickson)