Philadelphia breaks 80 year old building lease; moves to evict Scouts

Friday, June 1, 2007

Philadelphia Scout Building

In an unannounced vote yesterday, the Philadelphia City Council in the United States voted 16-1 to endorse the eviction of, and end their lease held in perpetuity with, the local council of the Boy Scouts in Philadelphia. The Scouts must pay market rent or leave the building. The Cradle of Liberty Council has more than 60,000 members in Philadelphia and Delaware and Montgomery Counties.


In a surprise move, the Philadelphia City Council voted to revoke the lease it signed with the Boy Scouts for the use of the land on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 1928 "in perpetuity." This clears the way for the eviction of the Scouts from the building in July 2007, one year after having been given their eviction notice. The vote of the council was needed to confirm Mayor Street’s eviction notice.

The on-going dispute between the city and the Scouts is one of the controversies over the issue of avowed homosexuals being leaders in the Boy Scouts. The city of Philadelphia does not allow discrimination against openly gay people, and the Scouts have asserted that under the First Amendment Freedom of assembly they can exclude people who don’t meet their membership standards.

In December 1928 the City of Philadelphia gave the Philadelphia Council permission to build a headquarters on city-owned land at 22nd and Spring Streets in Fairmount Park. The Scouts built their headquarters at their own expense and, complying with the terms of the agreement, immediately turned over the property to the city. In return they remained housed in their building rent free.

The Scouts have a non-discrimination policy, but have refused to include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination charter. This is due to pressure form the Mormon and Catholic churches, two of the largest sponsors of Scouting units. The Scouts require an oath of duty to God and the group's rules prohibit participation by any person who is an avowed homosexual. The policy over the exclusion of openly gay leaders had been challenged in court, but in 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed that as a private group, the Scouts could set restrictions for their leaders.

Gay activists then turned their sights on arrangements such as that in Berkeley (California) and Philadelphia, where the Scouts had been using public land rent free. In 2003 the council said it would adopt a nondiscrimination policy on homosexuals, but reversed itself within days under pressure from the National Council.

The resolution was introduced unexpectedly by Councilman Darrell L. Clarke and passed, 16-1, with no debate, with only Council Minority Leader Brian J. O'Neill voting against the resolution. "My hope is that the resolution will give a little more leverage to the city and that [the parties] can come up with some kind of compromise," Clarke said. "Honestly, no one wants to see them out of there."

A spokesman for the Cradle of Liberty Council, said scout officials were disappointed at the council vote and that they were not told in advance. "This is the way it's been done all along," said Jeff Jubelirer. "We feel we haven't been dealt with fairly." The Scouts are caught between a rock and a hard place. If they adopt the non-discrimination policy demanded by the city, they lose their national charter from the Boy Scouts. "The real victims here are the 40,000 kids in Philadelphia who potentially could lose after-school programs at a time when Philadelphia's murder rate is soaring," Jubelirer said.

City Solicitor Romulo Diaz, himself openly gay, said yesterday "The ball is in the [Cradle of Liberty] council's court." Equality Advocates Pennsylvania, which promotes legal equality for sexual minorities and pressed the city on the scouts' lease, yesterday praised the Council vote. "We recognize the value of the Boy Scouts programs to some young people. They, however, should not be able to use taxpayers' dollars to discriminate against others," said executive director Stacey Sobel.

Jubelirer said the Scouts felt "blindsided" by Council's action. "We had no idea this was coming today," he said they learned of the resolution from a lobbyist who was in council chambers when the resolution was introduced. "When the Fairmount Park commission voted to evict us [last July] we didn't get invited to the meeting. There's been a pattern of the city not giving us any information and doing things at the eleventh hour behind our backs." Councilman O'Neill said "This was too big an issue to have no hearing on," he said after the vote. "The Boy Scouts were negotiating in good faith. They were negotiating to be paid for the improvements they made to the building so they could start again somewhere else. "The local chapter was opposed to the national chapter's discrimination policy. I hate to see a group that agrees with us to be pushed out."

The future

The Boy Scouts can continue to use their building if they agree to pay market value rent. Jubelirer said the city has yet to tell the Cradle of Liberty Council what fair-market-value rent would be. Clarke said he opposes the fair-market-value rent alternative. "You should not be able to stay in a publicly funded facility without signing nondiscriminatory language regardless of whether you pay rent," he said.

Jubelirer said he did not know how scout officials would react and that any decision would likely involve leadership of the scout's National Council. "We walk a fine line between what National wants and what we want to do," Jubelirer said.

In February 2007, Bill Dwyer, the Scout Executive, announced to the board and the staff that the council could not afford to keep up the legal fight to remain at 22nd and Winter, and there was not the community support to force the mayor to change his decision to evict the Scouts.

Preparation began to abandon the building and build a new facility on private land. The new building will be built on along with the Salvation Army's new facilities in North Philadelphia.