Punishment will hurt community

Posted: October 26, 2007

Almost 80 years ago, the City of Philadelphia granted to the local Boy Scouts a low-cost rent on land at 22d and Winter Streets, "in perpetuity." This has proven to be a valuable partnership, both for the city and for its most important youth organization. But last week, the city penalized the Boy Scouts for its membership policies by raising the rent from $1 to $200,000 a year. This was wrong.

Proponents of the high rent say that the scouts' policy prohibiting homosexual members and leaders conflicts with the city's nondiscrimination code. But that's not necessarily true. Before the city finishes off its relationship with the local Boy Scouts, we should note the nature of that relationship.

The purpose of the relationship is not to enforce the Boy Scouts' membership policies on the people of Philadelphia. The scout oath is only applicable to scouting members, who swear to it.

The Boy Scouts of America is a private organization. As government cannot dictate the scouts' membership policies just because it has a partnership with the organization (the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of the Boy Scouts to establish its own membership rules in 2000), the scouts cannot change public policy by effect of its partnerships with government.

Therefore, the scouts' ban on homosexuals is none of the city's business.

Government must work with the private sector in a variety of ways. Whether it's selecting a coffee brand for the mayor's office or contracting out maintenance services, governments must often do business with private corporations.

Just as important, city government can and should partner with private civic or faith-based organizations. Through the Amachi Program, people of faith in Philadelphia are able to volunteer with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Churches and other religious organizations comprise 40 percent of Philadelphia's welfare-to-work programs. And hundreds of churches and synagogues across the city partner with public schools for campus safety and mentoring. Philadelphia is a model for the nation in these kinds of partnerships, which makes the weakened relationship with the Boy Scouts all the more bizarre.

Government cannot restrict its relationships with the private sector to morally "value-neutral" organizations. To force such restrictions on public-private partnerships would suggest that value-neutrality is even possible (it is not), and that organizations that emphasize moral and religious values are inferior to strictly secular groups.

In fact, it is organizations such as the Boy Scouts, which do emphasize moral principle, that are far more effective than other kinds of organizations at addressing the challenges of inner city schools, child poverty, drugs, and gangs.

Yet public-private partnerships are in no way a public adoption of the beliefs and values held by private organizations. It makes no difference to a broken inner city school whether it is the Boy Scouts (which exclude atheists and homosexuals) or the Girl Scouts (which do not exclude atheists and homosexuals) that come to improve the playground. If the Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs and City Hall decide to work together to raise money and talent for an after-school program, who could say no?

For nearly eight decades, it has made sense that the Boy Scouts have their headquarters on city property, and it has made sense to help the Boy Scouts in doing their "good turn daily" by making that headquarters available for low rent.

People in Philadelphia have understood what the Boy Scouts mean to the community. Scouting serves 40,000 children in Philadelphia. That's 40,000 children who are learning and growing and contributing to their neighborhoods.

When the Boy Scouts face the unfortunate task of cutting back from essential programs in order to pay rent, the big tragedy will not be the loss to an historic nonprofit organization. The tragedy will be the lost opportunities for the city of Philadelphia.

Hans Zeiger, an Eagle Scout and assistant scoutmaster in Puyallup, Wash., is spokesman for the Scouting Legal Defense Fund, a project of the American Civil Rights Union in Arlington, Va. He is the author of the 2005 book "Get Off My Honor: The Assault on the Boy Scouts of America."

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