Keeping Good Neighbors Let the Boy Scouts rent

Posted: July 27, 2006

With violence and other urban ills daily threatening Philadelphia's teens, it makes no sense to drive the local Boy Scouts council out of the city over the national organization's ban on gays.

That risks forgoing the many ways in which the city benefits from having 40,000 kids aspire to earn merit badges, while taking a pledge to "help other people at all times."

Trouble is, there's no way that the Boy Scouts' Cradle of Liberty Council can continue to stay rent-free in its city-owned Center City headquarters as long as it follows the national policy banning gays.

A 2000 U.S. Supreme Court ruling enables the Boy Scouts, as a private organization, to bar homosexuals for membership and as leaders. But that decision clashes with the city's antidiscrimination policy, which is the better yardstick.

So, the rent-free deal for the Boy Scouts' building, on 22d Street near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, is a perk that should be withdrawn. Indeed, it should have been revoked by the Street administration several years ago.

When the local council ousted an openly gay Boy Scout in 2003, city officials were put on notice to come to grips with the headquarters rent issue. An interim agreement made in 2005, under which the local Boy Scouts pledged to oppose "any form of unlawful discrimination," was all but meaningless. After all, the Supreme Court had given the scouts a green light to do just that - discriminate, legally.

Now Mayor Street has brought the issue to a head. His ultimatum issued last week through City Solicitor Romulo L. Diaz Jr., followed by hasty approval by the Fairmount Park Commission, lays out three options for the Boy Scouts: Renounce the national organization's bar on homosexuals as scouts or leaders, begin paying fair-market rent, or get out of the building.

Despite clumsy footwork by City Hall that leaves the impression that the Boy Scouts were blind-sided by this latest development, it was the right thing to do.

In the city's eviction letter, Diaz, who is gay, took note of the "many contributions" made by the Boy Scouts. In that spirit, the challenge for both the city and the Boy Scouts is to work with the local organization to keep it active and visible in the city - while sending a signal that the national ban on gays mars scouting's image.

This is a local dispute worthy of local resolution. Were the city and Boy Scouts to hunker down - waging a pitched, lengthy, legal battle over the rent-free building - no doubt, that would please some. But those would be the interest groups for whom the Boy Scouts' ban is just one more skirmish in the culture wars.

Shame on Philadelphia-based officials if they play into that game.

Here's how a local deal might be struck: Given the intransigence of their national leaders on the gay ban, the Cradle of Liberty Council Boy Scouts should pay fair-market rent. If they cannot afford that, there's a way the city could help.

While legally the city claims ownership of the Boy Scouts' headquarters, the building was erected, improved and maintained at the scouts' expense. The city could acknowledge the Boy Scouts' substantial investment in the property by reimbursing them for a portion of their expenses. That money would help defray rental payments in some part, but the city could specify that the bulk of the money be placed in a fund earmarked for city scouting programs.

What's gained? A good neighbor. (Recall that the Cradle of Liberty tried to buck national scouting's antigay stance.) What's lost? A costly, legal dispute that would be fodder for the culture wars.

Replacing the Boy Scouts' headquarters with condos wouldn't make Philadelphia a better place for its children.

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