A Boy Scouts chapter engaged in a long fight over gay rights has sued the city of Philadelphia to try to avoid paying $200,000 a year in rent to stay in the city-owned space that has been its headquarters for 80 years.
The Cradle of Liberty Council currently pays $1 annually for the space, but the city has given it until Saturday to open their membership to gays or start being charged fair-market rent.
The federal suit filed Friday accuses the city of censorship for targeting the Scouts but maintaining free or nominal leases with other groups that limit membership, such as Baptist and Roman Catholic church groups and The Colonial Dames of America.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the Boy Scouts, as a private group, have a First Amendment right to bar gays. But the policy has had consequences, with municipalities, charities and donors withholding support.
"We will not allow discrimination in providing services on city property," Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said Tuesday.
A 1982 city ordinance bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and other grounds.
"We're not punishing them for not admitting homosexuals," City Solicitor Shelley Smith said. "But they can't get free rent and violate our policy."
Smith said the city was unaware of any discrimination by other groups with city-subsidized space, but that it would investigate any complaints.
The Cradle of Liberty Council oversees about 300 troops in Philadelphia and suburban Delaware and Montgomery counties. It serves about 70,000 children, including 50,000 in the city, the suit said.
The Scouts say the higher rent would force them to cut programs, and represents the cost of sending about 800 needy children to summer camp.
"They're providing a tremendous public benefit. They're giving back a whole lot more than what they get from the city," said lawyer Jason Gosselin, who represents the Cradle of Liberty Council.
The group adopted an explicit nondiscrimination policy in 2003 after negotiations with the city. But it was forced to rescind it when the Boy Scouts of America said Philadelphia Scout officials could not deviate from national rules barring participation by anyone who is openly gay.
The Cradle of Liberty Council then negotiated compromise language that barred "unlawful discrimination."
"It was a non-issue once the 2004 agreement was reached, and then sort of out of the blue it's being brought up again," Gosselin said.
Smith said the city fears that the language does not go far enough - and provides the Scouts wiggle room to ban gays by citing the Supreme Court ruling.
"I think they think that their First Amendment right trumps our local ordinance," Smith said.
The city owns the Beaux Arts headquarters constructed by the Scouts in 1928 and the land beneath it. The Scouts have spent about $60,000 a year to maintain the building, and another $1.5 million for renovations in 1994, the suit said.
The building would be far from the first loss associated with the Boy Scouts' policy on homosexuals.
Film director Steven Spielberg resigned from the national group's advisory board. The city of Berkeley, Calif., stopped lending its marina for free to the Berkeley Sea Scouts. United Way chapters stopped funding programs, and the Defense Department stopped sponsoring troops.
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