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Trial To Open In Boy Scout-Philadelphia Dispute

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Trial To Open In Boy Scout-Philadelphia Dispute

Trial To Open In Boy Scout-Philadelphia Dispute

Trial To Open In Boy Scout-Philadelphia Dispute

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

It's been two years since city officials in Philadelphia threatened to evict the local chapter of the Boy Scouts from the city-owned office space that the group has used rent-free for decades. Officials say the Scouts' policy against openly gay members violates local anti-discrimination laws. The Boy Scouts sued, charging the city with violating the group's constitutional rights.


The Boy Scouts and the city of Philadelphia are going to court. City officials accuse the Boy Scouts of defying an anti-discrimination law by excluding gays and lesbians, so Philadelphia's trying to evict the Boy Scouts from a building that is owned by the city. As Joel Rose reports, the scouts are prepared for a fight.

JOEL ROSE: The roots of this dispute go all the way back to the 1920s, when the Boy Scouts built their headquarters on land owned by the city of Philadelphia.

Mr. TOM HARRINGTON (CEO, Local Philadelphia Boy Scouts Chapter): The agreement with the city 80 years ago was the Boy Scouts could build a building here and use it for a Boy Scout office forever. And that's what we're doing.

ROSE: Tom Harrington is the CEO of the local Boy Scouts chapter.

Mr. HARRINGTON: We built the building with Boy Scout money, and the agreement was we could stay there rent-free.

ROSE: And that's what happened until two years ago, when Philadelphia ordered the Scouts to start paying $200,000 a year in rent or face eviction. City solicitor Shelly Smith says taxpayers will no longer subsidize an organization that officially excludes gays and lesbians.

Ms. SHELLY SMITH (City Solicitor): The Boy Scouts have been vigorously trying to protect their right to discriminate against this segment of the community. We're not seeking to tell the Boy Scouts that they can't have whatever policies they want. They merely cannot maintain them and have a rent-free occupancy of a city property.

ROSE: The Boy Scout didn't leave. Instead, they sued. Jason Gosselin is the Scouts' lawyer. He says Philadelphia is violating the groups' First Amendment right of free association - a right the Supreme Court upheld in 2000.

Mr. JASON GOSSELIN (Lawyer): The city knows that it cannot directly require the Scouts to change their policy, so they're leveraging this benefit that they offer.

ROSE: Local Scouts CEO Tom Harrington says dozens of other nonprofit organizations get free rent from the city.

Mr. HARRINGTON: We appear to be the only organization that the city has singled out to say that we need to pay, quote, "fair market rent." We don't really want to be in this situation with the city. We would prefer to be working with the city for the good of the kids here.

ROSE: If the Scouts are forced to pay rent, Harrington says they'll have less money to spend on programs for thousands of local kids who participate in scouting each year. But the city and its supporters say the Boy Scouts have only themselves to blame.

Amara Chaudhry is director of legal services at the Mazzoni Center, a nonprofit that serves the LGBT community in Philadelphia. She says other organizations manage to comply with the city's rules.

Ms. AMARA CHAUDHRY (Mazzoni Center): For example, Catholic Social Services runs a men's shelter in town. If the Catholic Church can agree to follow the city's anti-discrimination policy, I see no reason why the Boy Scouts cannot.

ROSE: A few years ago, the Philadelphia Boy Scouts chapter did try to change its policy on gays and lesbians, but the national organization said no. Settlement negotiations have gone nowhere. George Washington University law Professor Jonathan Turley says that's not surprising, because both the city and the Scouts can make a compelling case.

Professor JONATHAN TURLEY (Law, George Washington University): There are discrimination cases where these policies and ordinances have largely been upheld. But there are also a lot of cases involving the right of association which have also been upheld. The problem is that the Supreme Court has never created a single, unified doctrine, and the Philadelphia case really sums that up.

ROSE: A federal jury in Pennsylvania will begin hearing the case this week. But it may be a higher court that gets the final word.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

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