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 Scouts currently pay $1 annually for the space, but the city has given them 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.
However, taxpayers cannot keep subsidizing the rent of a group that discriminates, City Solicitor Shelley Smith said Tuesday.
"They're free to exercise their First Amendment rights," Smith said. "What they're not free to do is get a benefit from the city while violating our policy."
Smith said the city was unaware of any discrimination by other groups with city-subsidized space, but that it would investigate any possible violations.
The Philadelphia chapter 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 local chapter, called the Cradle of Liberty Council, then adopted what it considered compromise language that barred "unlawful discrimination" — the same standard used by Scout groups in New York, a council spokesman said Tuesday.
"If that's working and there haven't been any problems, why can't that continue?" spokesman Jeff Jubelirer said.
Forced to cut programs?
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 Scouts say the higher rent would force them to cut programs, and is equivalent to the cost of sending about 800 needy children to summer camp.
The Cradle of Liberty Council oversees about 300 troops in Philadelphia and suburban Delaware and Montgomery counties. The council serves about 70,000 children, including 50,000 in the city, the suit said.