Pete Winn | Senior Staff Writer | Thursday, May 29, 2008
Members of the Cradle of Liberty Scout Council say the city raised the rent on the building from $1 a year to $200,000 a year because of the Scouts' membership policies - policies that require scoutmasters to be heterosexuals and require scouts to pledge to "do their duty to God and country."
"We believe the city is trying to punish us for exercising our First Amendment rights," said Mark Chilutti, vice chairman of the Cradle of Liberty Council, which filed its lawsuit on May 23.
The suit alleges that the city of Philadelphia lets more than 1,000 nonprofit groups meet on city property for little to no rent, including a Baptist church, a Roman Catholic church and the Philly chapter of the Colonial Dames of America.
Ironically, Chilutti said the Scouts actually built the building they are in, and gave it to the city in return for the right to lease it for $1 per year.
"In 1928, we were given the land by the city, and the council raised money to build the building," he told Cybercast News Service . "We believed we had it in perpetuity for as long as we continued to house Boy Scout-related programming."
The Scouts spend about $60,000 a year to maintain the building and periodically renovate it.
"After the initial gift of the land, the city has not put one penny into that building," Chilutti said. "The Scouts have maintained it on an annual basis. We have constantly done renovations - in 1994, we put over $1.5 million in it. We've put a lot of money into it, and we're proud of the building."
"We haven't really changed anything in the 80 years that we've been in that building. It's the city that has changed position," he said.
The Philadelphia City Council voted 16-1 in May 2007 to break its agreement with the Scouts, accusing them of "discriminating" against homosexuals who want to be scoutmasters.
The city did not return calls from Cybercast News Service requesting an interview, but City Solicitor Shelley Smith told the Associated Press that the Scouts are "free to exercise their First Amendment rights."
"What they're not free to do is get a benefit from the city while violating our policy," she said.
Peter Ferrara, general counsel for the American Civil Rights Union, said he thinks the Boy Scouts are being penalized for holding traditional beliefs.
"A state or local government cannot penalize an organization or a citizen for exercising constitutional rights," Ferrara told Cybercast News Service . "The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the Scouts have a constitutional right to choose their adult leaders and not to hire adult leaders they don't want to, and the city cannot penalize them for those values."
Chilutti, meanwhile, said the higher rent would force them to cut programs, and is equivalent to the cost of sending about 800 needy children to summer camp, a point not lost on conservatives like Ferrara.
"Philadelphia has the highest murder rate in the country, one of the highest rates of violent crime. They have enormous trouble with violent youth gangs, teen-age pregnancy, teen-age drug use and dropping out of high school," Ferrara said. "What the city ought to be doing is supporting the Boy Scouts, as much as possible, to teach youth sound moral values, and to counter these terrible trends that are plaguing the city."
The Scouts, meanwhile, say that if they must vacate, the city should at least provide compensation, not charge high rent.
"The city has tried to use the term 'fair market rent' but it's really punitive rent -- $61 per square foot for a building that is in Center City Philadelphia," Chilutti said. "That's unheard of, that's ridiculous. It's more like Trump Tower in Manhattan rates."
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