PHILADELPHIA — The city of Philadelphia cannot evict a local Boy Scouts chapter from a city-owned building for refusing to admit gays, a federal jury ruled Wednesday.
The city had insisted that nonprofits given free use of its property must abide by local anti-discrimination laws, which include equal protection for gays. But the jury found the city's reason violated the local scout council's First Amendment rights.
"We do hope that eventually national (Boy Scouts of America) will change its minds. But at this point, the Cradle of Liberty (Council) is still obligated to follow its policy," said foreman Merrill Arbogast, 40, of Reinholds, a trucker and former Eagle Scout.
In their lawsuit, the scouts had sought an injunction barring the city from evicting them, or charging $200,000 a year in rent, on their stately Beaux Arts headquarters building.
While the verdict gives weight to their request, the judge did not immediately issue the ban. Instead, he told jurors the city's anti-discrimination policy is "principled" and said he hoped the two "honorable institutions" could work something out.
"The city defended this suit in a very principled way, in an area of the law that is highly nuanced – Constitutional Law – and highly unpredictable," U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter told jurors after the verdict.
In his view, he said, the city can still terminate the lease under the 1928 agreement, which was designed to give nonprofits free rent if they maintained the sites. However, the city must terminate the lease for a legally permissible reason, not because of an organization's views.
"From now on, the Boy Scouts will be negotiating from a position of strength," said lawyer Jason Gosselin, who represents the scouts. "The city can't come in and impose its views on what the scouts ought to do."
He hopes negotiations with the city will resume. The city was reviewing its legal options.
"While the good work of the Boy Scouts cannot be disputed, the city remains steadfast in its commitment to prevent its facilities from being used to disadvantage certain groups," the city said in a statement.
The eight-day trial followed a decade of sometimes heated discussions stemming from a 2000 Supreme Court decision that said the Boy Scouts, as a private group, can exclude gays from membership. Some public and private donors around the country withdrew support.
In Philadelphia, the Cradle of Liberty Council tried to walk a fine line between appeasing the city, the United Way and other supporters and the Irving, Texas-based Boy Scouts of America.
In 2003, it enacted its own nondiscrimination policy but was forced to retrench when the Boy Scouts of America ordered it to conform with national rules. The chapter later enacted a statement that says it doesn't tolerate illegal discrimination.
"We felt that they were between a rock and a hard place," said Arbogast, the jury foreman.
There has been just one known case of a gay scout being ousted from the Philadelphia chapter, although the city argued that many more may be scared off by the national policy.
Greg Lattera, 25, testified that scouting meant the world to him as an inner-city child. He said he did not intend to become a flag bearer for gay rights when he spoke about being gay while wearing his scout uniform in a TV news interview.
"We felt he was used, a pawn for certain groups' agenda," Arbogast said.