By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 19, 2007
PHILADELPHIA -- This may be the last free Thanksgiving dinner for the Boy Scouts of Philadelphia.
Citing a local 1982 "fair practices" law, the city solicitor has given the Scouts until Dec. 3 to renounce its policy of excluding homosexuals or forfeit the grand, Beaux-Arts building it has rented from the city for $1 a year since 1928.
"While we respect the right of the Boy Scouts to prohibit participation in its activities by homosexuals," the solicitor, Romulo Diaz, said last week in an interview, "we will not subsidize that discrimination by passing on the costs to the people of Philadelphia."
The city has yet to complete an official assessment of the property. But it has tentatively placed the market value at $200,000 a year and has invited the Boy Scouts to remain in the nearly 100-year-old building as paying tenants.
The confrontation between the city and the nation's third-largest Scouts chapter has been building for four years, with each side blaming the other for backing out of previous agreements and for escalating tensions.
The local branch, which operates as the Cradle of Liberty Council, tried to skirt the bylaw in 2004 by issuing a four-line statement, which concluded: "Prejudice, intolerance and unlawful discrimination in any form are unacceptable within the ranks of Cradle of Liberty Council."
The statement satisfied the city until gay rights groups worried that "unlawful discrimination" gave the chapter cover to continue the anti-homosexual hiring practices of the Boy Scouts of America.
"We thought it meant unlawful under the city code," Diaz said. "But when community folks started to complain, we asked for a clarification and got no response."
The Supreme Court ruled seven years ago that the national Boy Scouts, as a private organization, had the right to exclude homosexuals from its ranks. The Boy Scouts also prohibit atheists and agnostics from employment on the grounds that such beliefs are inconsistent with the values of the country's largest youth organization. Two years ago, Congress passed the Support Our Scouts Act to protect chapters from local government attempts to strip them of access to public facilities in response to the anti-homosexual policy.
Jeff Jubelirer, a spokesman for Cradle of Liberty, said the chapter, hoping to save its historic headquarters, had sought to renounce an affiliation with the national policy when the dispute with the city arose in 2003.
"We were trying to be amenable to all sides, but National would not allow us to keep that language, so we rescinded it. We can't have a policy where we put in specific words that National won't allow or we'll loose our charter. We can't afford not to be part of the national Boy Scouts," he said.
Jubelirer said Cradle of Liberty has not received any complaints from an individual claiming discrimination. While the national application for scout leaders clearly states that employment is not open to homosexuals, Jubelirer suggested the local chapter has been operating under a "don't ask, don't tell" policy for other employees.
"It's not something that is asked" of applicants, he said. "But if someone were to come forward with something regarding sexual orientation, political beliefs, atheism or communism, that would be a problem."
Cradle of Liberty says it serves more than 64,000 youths, mostly from the inner city, and that, as a result, its programming is centered more on mentoring and after-school programs instead of suburban camping trips. But it also hosts the oldest scouting event in the country, a three-day annual encampment at Valley Forge. Each year, thousands of troops gather to commemorate the harsh winter that George Washington spent there with Continental army soldiers.
Jubelirer said the council board has not decided how it will respond on Dec. 3 and is weighing its options, including a legal fight. What it would like is another compromise, and Jubelirer said it is hoping the city's next Democratic mayor, Michael Nutter, will be more amenable to a deal after his January swearing-in.
But Diaz said he had the support of Nutter and the city council, which voted in May to evict the Scouts if they did not change the policy.
"If I do not receive an executed lease, signed by the Boy Scouts, to remain as tenants paying a fair market rent, we will begin looking for alternative tenants that can take over the property June 1, 2008," Diaz said.
Staff writer Robin Shulman contributed to this report.