City's settlement with Scouts draws fire from gay leaders

Councilman Darrell Clarke: Not ready for an ordinance.
Councilman Darrell Clarke: Not ready for an ordinance.
Posted: November 19, 2010

Prominent gay leaders are voicing strong criticism of a proposed legal settlement between the city and the regional Boy Scouts organization, and a key City Councilman is balking at the deal.

The proposal calls for the Boy Scouts group to pay the city $500,000 to buy its 13,000-square-foot headquarters in Logan Square, the focus of a civil-rights dispute that began over the Scouts' national ban on gay members.

The price tag is less than half the appraised value of the building. But the settlement would end an expensive legal fight and the risk that city taxpayers would eventually have to pay the Scouts' legal bills, now approaching $1 million.

Gay-rights advocates say the city's lawyers are putting financial concerns ahead of principle, appearing to subsidize the Scouts' discrimination.

"Those who have just learned about it find it outrageous and duplicitous," said Malcolm Lazin, executive director of the Equality Forum, an international LGBT-rights organization headquartered here. " . . . To find that they're literally rewarding discrimination, by selling one of the most prized parcels on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for a song, is hugely disappointing. . . . It certainly undermines the credibility of the city's commitment to equality."

"We just don't really see why the Boy Scouts should get a sweetheart deal to buy the building . . . and once they buy it, be allowed to continue their discrimination," said Andrew Chirls, former chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association.

"This is the kind of building that gets turned into a museum or a showcase home for famous people," Chirls continued. "They want to sell it for the price of a very nice rowhouse - a rowhouse that doesn't have 19 parking spaces next to it. That has the smell of a subsidy."

City Solicitor Shelley Smith and the Scouts' attorney, Sandra Girifalco, had issued a joint statement Wednesday night describing their agreement as a "win-win situation" for both their clients, predicting that a necessary ordinance would be introduced yesterday in City Council.

But Councilman Darrell Clarke, whose district includes the property, said he wasn't ready to introduce anything. The settlement statement had been "premature," he said, because there hadn't been enough communication with neighborhood residents or the gay community.

Both the Scouts and the Nutter administration tried to play down the controversy yesterday.

"Councilman Clarke has been extremely helpful in addressing some outstanding issues," said Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald. " . . . We hope any remaining issues can be satisfied soon and we can obtain necessary Council approval."

The dispute began with a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2000 that upheld the legality of the national organization's ban on homosexual Scouts and troop leaders.

That put the Scouts organization in conflict with the city charter's ban on discrimination rooted in sexual orientation. In 2007, the city said the regional Scouts organization would have to vacate or begin paying $200,000-a-year rent for its previously rent-free headquarters at 22nd and Winter streets, built by the Scouts 80 years ago on property owned by the city.

Instead of pulling out their checkbook, the Scouts sued the city, alleging a violation of First Amendment rights. Last June, a federal jury agreed that the city had violated the Scouts' rights and raising the specter that taxpayers might have to pay their legal bills, most recently estimated at $960,000.

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