Settlement possible in Scouts case

The city Law Department has reached a tentative settlement with a local Boy Scouts of America council that would allow the council to purchase a building that’s been the focus of a protracted federal lawsuit.

According to the proposed settlement, which still must be approved by City Council, the Cradle of Liberty Council has three years to pay $600,000 for the city-owned building and land at 231-251 N. 22nd St.

In return, the council would drop its federal lawsuit and agree to relinquish its right to seek almost $1 million in legal expenses from the city under the proposed settlement.

Once the council purchases the property, the city no longer would object to antigay discrimination taking place inside the facility under the terms of the settlement.

The BSA council would be permitted to hold fundraisers inside the building, but if it doesn’t come up with the money needed to buy the building within three years, it must vacate the premises.

The proposal also would permit the BSA to purchase the building for $500,000 if it does so within two years of signing a finalized agreement.

Within 90 days of finalizing an agreement, the BSA council must stop administering programs inside the building that discriminate against individuals protected by the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance.

However, the proposal doesn’t specify the activities the council can conduct in the building during the three-year period.

Presumably, the BSA council would be permitted to continue administering Learning for Life, an educational and vocational program, which purportedly serves about 55,000 regional youths in a non-discriminatory manner.

Learning for Life’s “policy on participation,” as posted on its website, declares that “color, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic background, disability, economic status or citizenship are not criteria for participation.”

The city already contracts with the local BSA council to administer LFL programs for city youths considering careers in law enforcement and prison management.

Additionally, many Philadelphia public schools contract with the local BSA council for LFL programming that helps instill ethical decision-making skills among students, according to court documents.

The city’s legal position is the BSA council doesn’t have a right to administer programs that ban openly gay participants inside the building.

But the BSA council counters that a 2000 Supreme Court decision allows them to exclude gays from traditional Scouting programs, even if it’s done inside the building.

The city tried to evict the BSA council in 2008, but the council filed a federal lawsuit to block the eviction. In June, a jury ruled that the city placed an “unconstitutional condition” on the BSA council when it demanded the Scouts stop excluding gays in order to remain in the building.

The city wants the trial judge to overturn that verdict, or alternatively to hold a new trial. At press time, U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter hadn’t ruled on the request.

However, at the conclusion of the eight-day jury trial, he urged both sides to reach an out-of-court settlement.

Mark McDonald, a spokesperson for Mayor Nutter, said administration officials had no comment for this story because the proposed settlement isn’t finalized.

City Councilman Darrell L. Clarke, whose district encompasses the building, had no comment on whether he would introduce a measure in City Council to help finalize the proposed settlement.

Kera Walter, a spokesperson for the BSA council, also declined to comment.

Andrew A. Chirls, a member of the LGBT Working Group, which has been advocating for several years to resolve the situation, expressed concern about the proposed settlement.

“This is something that everybody has to look at skeptically,” Chirls said. “It sells something for the price of a big rowhouse to someone who avows the intention to discriminate in it. You cannot look at this without taking that into account. It is — in the short term — an improvement over the status quo. There’s not going to be discrimination in that building, and that will take effect 90 days from when City Council acts, if it does. So in 90 days, things will be better than they are today. There’s no question about that. There’s also no question that given the current status of the federal case, to win the case, it will take many more months to get to that point. But I still have a lot of concern about the final result. It’s the Scouts being given the opportunity to buy that building for the price of a nice rowhouse.”

Another member of the LGBT Working Group, who declined to be identified, noted that the proposal doesn’t contain a provision requiring the BSA council to share with the city any profits it might make if it sells the property in the future.

“The Scouts could flip the building and make a killing,” he said.

The member also said the city has an “excellent” chance of winning on appeal, which would result in the city not having to pay any of the BSA council’s legal expenses.

Under the terms of a 1928 City Council ordinance, the city owns the Beaux Arts structure — which was built by the Scouts — but the BSA council is permitted to occupy it rent-free unless given one-year’s notice by the city to vacate.

Drinker Biddle & Reath, the BSA council’s Center City law firm, is seeking $963,575.07 from the city for legal fees and expenses incurred due to the litigation, according to court records.

Tim Cwiek can be reached at (215) 625-8501 ext. 208.

Previous articleTwo murder cases spotlight trans community
Next articleSuicide epidemic claims another
Tim Cwiek has been writing for PGN since the 1970s. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from West Chester State University. In 2013, he received a Sigma Delta Chi Investigative Reporting Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his reporting on the Nizah Morris case. Cwiek was the first reporter for an LGBT media outlet to win an award from that national organization. He's also received awards from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the National Newspaper Association, and the Keystone Press.