Robert Gates, who on Thursday took over as president of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), on Friday said that re-opening the topic of allowing openly gay adults in the BSA could lead to the organization's demise.

The BSA ended its policy banning openly gay scouts in January, but adult gays are not allowed to participate in the program.

Gates, who as secretary of defense oversaw the end of the military's “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” policy, made his remarks in an interview with the AP.

“I was prepared to go further than the decision that was made,” Gates said. “I would have supported having gay Scoutmasters, but at the same time, I fully accept the decision that was democratically arrived at by 1,500 volunteers [on the National Council] from across the entire country.”

The issue “has left us divided, distracted and defensive,” Gates said.

“Given the strong feelings – the passion – involved on both sides of this matter, I believe strongly that to re-open the membership issue or try to take last year's decision to the next step would irreparably fracture and perhaps even provoke a formal, permanent split in this movement – with the high likelihood neither side would subsequently survive on its own.”

“... And who would pay the price for destroying the Boy Scouts of America? Millions of Scouts today and Scouts yet unborn. … Thus, during my time as president, I will oppose any effort to re-open the issue,” he added.

NBC reported on Tuesday that BSA leaders had quietly voted to change the organization's definition of youth, lowering it from 21 to 18 across all its programs. That is, once the policy takes effect in 2015, openly gay scouts will be forced out of the BSA three years earlier than under the previous policy.

Zach Wahls, co-founder of Scouts for Equality, criticized Gates' decision, calling it a “copout.”

“His characterization of last year's decision as 'democratic' is unfortunate and untrue, as the resolution limiting inclusion to only youth was crafted by a small, unelected committee more concerned with avoiding criticism than with following the principles of the Scout Oath and law,” Wahls said in a statement.

“This is a copout, and it tarnishes the legacy Mr. Gates has built as a leader who bridged cultural and political divides and led the military – and now the Boy Scouts – into the 21st century.”