By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 3, 2007
The Boy Scouts in Philadelphia are refusing to break camp.
The city has given the local chapter until today to renounce its policy of excluding gays or forfeit the lease on the grand, Beaux-Arts building it has rented from the city for $1 a year since 1928.
"We're ignoring the deadline," said Mark Chilutti, a member of the Cradle of Liberty Council executive board, which operates the local Scouts chapter. "It was the least bad option we have."
The decision is likely to intensify a four-year standoff with city officials who have been trying to enforce a 1982 "fair practices" law that bans municipal subsidies for organizations that discriminate.
The city solicitor, Romulo L. Diaz Jr., had given the chapter until today to change its policies. If the Scouts refuse to do so, they will have to leave their historic headquarters by June 1 or pay market value for the property, which the city has placed at $200,000 a year. Diaz said in a recent interview that he would begin looking for a new tenant for the 100-year-old building tomorrow.
The confrontation between the city and the nation's third-largest Scouts chapter began in May 2003 when the national Boy Scouts held their annual meeting in Philadelphia. During the conference, a local Scout challenged the organization's policies by announcing on television that he was gay and a devoted member of the organization. He was promptly dismissed by the council.
When the city responded by threatening to evict the chapter, local Boy Scout officials considered breaking with the national policy. But they were soon facing the prospect of another eviction, this time from the national Boy Scouts, who said Cradle of Liberty would lose its charter if it opened its ranks to gays.
"We are a franchisee of the national council," Chilutti said. "If we were a McDonald's franchisee, we couldn't sell Whoppers, even if we thought it was a better product."
The Supreme Court ruled seven years ago that the Boy Scouts of America, as a private organization, has the right to exclude gays 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-gay policy.
The Cradle of Liberty Council tried to satisfy the city and the national organization by issuing a four-line statement that concluded: "Prejudice, intolerance and unlawful discrimination in any form are unacceptable within the ranks of Cradle of Liberty Council."
But gay rights groups worried that "unlawful discrimination" gave the chapter cover to continue anti-gay hiring practices.
Jeff Jubelirer, a spokesman for Cradle of Liberty, said the chapter has not faced any discrimination charges in recent years and has since adopted an informal "don't ask, don't tell" policy for its support staff. But potential scout leaders must affirm that they are not gay.
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 on mentoring and after-school programs instead of suburban camping trips. It also hosts the oldest scouting event in the country, a three-day annual encampment at Valley Forge to commemorate the harsh winter that George Washington spent there with Continental Army soldiers.
Chilutti said the Scouts are still weighing their options and are looking forward to reopening the issue in January when incoming mayor Michael Nutter is sworn in.
"This is a city with a very high homicide rate and many other problems. I doubt the mayor's first priority is going to be to evict the Boy Scouts," Chilutti said.
Staff Researcher Rena Kirsch contributed to this report.