Philadelphia would sell building to Boy Scouts under proposed settlement

Posted: November 18, 2010

Philadelphia would stop trying to evict the Cradle of Liberty Council Boy Scouts from its headquarters near Logan Square and instead sell the building to the organization at a cut-rate price, thereby ending a nearly decadelong dispute, under a proposed settlement.

The city-owned building, which the scouts have occupied for 80 years, would be sold for $500,000. Both sides agree its appraised value is at least $1 million. In return, the scouts would not seek $1 million in compensation from Philadelphia that they are entitled to under federal law.

The sale requires City Council approval, said Thomas R. Harrington, executive director of the scout organization, which has about 87,000 members in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

An ordinance to approve the sale was expected to be introduced in Council Thursday, City Solicitor Shelly Smith said, but Councilman Darrell L. Clarke, who would be the candidate to introduce a bill involving his district, said early Wednesday evening that he had not agreed to introduce a bill cementing such a deal.

In a joint statement, the city and scouts said: "Everyone has worked hard to find an equitable settlement. What we have on the table is a win-win situation that resolves the lawsuit . . . gives the scouts the opportunity to buy the headquarters they have been in for 80 years."

The settlement terms appear to be the same as those reached more than two months ago, according to a letter outlining the agreement that was signed by Smith and obtained by The Inquirer. The mayor's press office maintained that no deal was final - until early Wednesday evening.

The negotiated agreement follows a U.S. District Court jury verdict in June that Philadelphia had violated the Boy Scouts' First Amendment rights by moving to evict them after the local group refused to explicitly renounce the national policy of not allowing openly gay scouts and scoutmasters.

Harrington said the scouts would start a fund-raising drive for the purchase if the agreement was approved.

The scouts would have two years to buy the building. In the meantime, the Cradle of Liberty Council would limit its operations to those the city believes do not discriminate.

Harrington said that meant no "traditional" scouting programs would be run out of the building and that most employees would vacate their offices until the scouts became the legal owners. The scouts have a second headquarters at Valley Forge.

The Depression-era Beaux-Arts building, at 22d and Winter Streets, was built by the scouts but is on city land and effectively owned by Philadelphia. Despite the scouts' court victory, which the city appealed, the city could have evicted the scouts if the eviction occurred without violating the organization's constitutional rights.

After the verdict, U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter advised both sides to negotiate an end to the dispute.

Sandy Girifalco, one of the scouts' attorneys, said the agreement would provide for a final resolution to the lawsuit.

In recent months, the two sides had been sparring in court about the scouts' estimated $1 million in legal costs resulting from the jury trial. Federal law allows the winning side in a civil rights case to bill the losers for costs. In August, the city filed a 98-page brief arguing against payment.

The $1 million bill covered costs incurred by the law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath L.L.P., which represented the scouts without a fee.

About 10 lawyers worked on the case, and two - Jason Gosselin and William M. McSwain - represented the scouts in court.

The trial was never about whether the Cradle of Liberty Council had the legal right to discriminate. A 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2000 said the Boy Scouts were a "membership organization" and could exclude gays.

But the City Charter forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and the city decided in 2006 that the council's refusal to explicitly reject the national scout policy violated city law.

The scouts were ordered to vacate the headquarters, which they had occupied rent-free, or lease it for $200,000 a year. It is one of two offices operated by the council, which also has Boy Scout troops in Delaware and Montgomery Counties.

The scouts contended that the city's move was an unconstitutional "coercion" that violated the organization's rights to free speech and equal protection.


Contact staff writer Nathan Gorenstein at 215-854-2797 or ngorenstein@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writers Miriam Hill and Marcia Gelbart contributed to this article.

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