Philadelphia: Scouts Should Confront Anti-Gay Rule

June 15, 2010 - 3:20 PM
City lawyers called on local Boy Scout officials to muster "the courage of their convictions" and challenge their national group's ban on gays as a trial over government funding opened Tuesday.

Shown is the city-owned Boy Scouts headquarters in Philadelphia, Monday, June 14, 2010. A federal trial is getting under way that could settle a long-running dispute between local Boy Scouts and the city of Philadelphia. At issue is whether the local scouts group should be allowed to stay rent-free in its city-owned headquarters, despite the Boy Scouts of America's national policy banning gays. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Philadelphia (AP) - City lawyers called on local Boy Scout officials to muster "the courage of their convictions" and challenge their national group's ban on gays as a trial over government funding opened Tuesday.
 
The city of Philadelphia wants to end its $1-a-year lease to the local Boy Scouts chapter unless it rejects a Boy Scouts of America policy banning "avowed" gays. The city says the national rule violates a local law banning discrimination on sexual-orientation and other grounds.
 
Local scout chapters, including the Cradle of Liberty Council in Philadelphia, have struggled in recent years to satisfy both public and private funders as well as their national leadership's dictums. The Boy Scout oath calls for members to be "morally straight," which the national group interprets to mean that gays cannot participate.
 
In 2004, the Philadelphia chapter agreed to ban any "unlawful" discrimination. But the city said the policy didn't go far enough, given that the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 had said scouts and other private organizations can legally restrict membership.
 
"The city tried for years to get them to (muster) ... the courage of their convictions," lawyer David Smith, representing the city, told jurors Monday in opening statements. "You can't go on speaking out of both sides of your mouth because we, the government, cannot subsidize that kind of conduct."
 
The Cradle of Liberty Council sued the city in federal court two years ago, on grounds the threat to rescind the 1928 lease violated its rights of free speech and freedom of association.
 
Chapter leaders also accuse the city of applying its lease rules selectively, since at least two other groups with limited membership rules - a Roman Catholic parish and a Colonial Dames of America chapter - also enjoy subsidized leases in city-owned buildings. Smith countered that those groups pledged to open the doors of those buildings to all.
 
"They want us to change the policy and they know they can't make us do it. And the only leverage they have is this building," said lawyer Jason Gosselin, representing the Cradle of Liberty Council.
 
He did not shy away from the tension that has surrounded Boy Scouts since the 2000 Supreme Court decision.
 
Lead-off witness William T. Dwyer III, the now-retired director of the Philadelphia council, was expected to recount the challenges he faced.
 
"He's going to talk to you about how he tried to walk that fine line," Gosselin told the diverse two-man, six-woman jury. "His focus all this time was the 75,000 kids who relied on these programs."
 
The Cradle of Liberty Council serves boys - and also girls in some of its programs - in Philadelphia and its suburbs.
 
The council under Dwyer never discussed anyone's sexual orientation, Gosselin said. If boys brought it up, they were told to discuss it with their parents or clergy, he said.
 
But that apparent "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" approach no longer held in the wake of the 2000 Supreme Court decision, as funders and activists debated the national policy. In one case that drew headlines, the Cradle of Liberty Council forced out 18-year-old Eagle Scout Greg Lattera after he went on TV - in his scout uniform - to declare that he was gay.
 
"It's because he wore his uniform and advanced his own agenda at the expense of the Boy Scouts. That's why he was asked to leave," Gosselin said Tuesday.
 
Lattera is expected to testify for the city, which argues that the Boy Scouts have no inherent right to the sweetheart lease, even though they raised the funds to build the stately Beaux Arts building on the city site nearly a century ago. The fair-market rent is now about $200,000 a year, the city said.
 
The local council's dilemma, Smith said, stems from it "giving in to heavy-handed coercion by the Boy Scouts of America" to force it to follow the national group's views.