A meeting has been scheduled between Mayor Nutter and leaders of the LGBT community to discuss a controversial proposal to sell publicly owned land to a local Boy Scouts of America council.
Meanwhile, members of the Mayor’s LGBT Advisory Board have sent a letter to Nutter conveying opposition to the proposal. Additionally, about 50 rabbis, ministers and other religious leaders have signed an open letter opposing the deal.
“The sale of a public building to an organization that denies the essential worth of every individual disenfranchises those of us who work towards equality for all,” states a letter from Religious Leaders Against Subsidized Discrimination. “The liberty of citizens will be preserved when the city guarantees that no public dollars will be used to dehumanize anyone because of their sexual or religious identity.”
The BSA Cradle of Liberty Council wants to purchase 231-251 N. 22nd St. from the city for $500,000 in order to settle a civil-rights lawsuit pending in federal court. City appraisals for the property have ranged between $1 million and $2 million.
Nutter has stated that a tentative agreement in support of the deal has been reached between the city and the Scouts, which cannot be breached.
Critics of the deal. however, question the enforceability of the agreement, pointing out that City Council approval is required before any public property can be sold.
City officials have been involved in lengthy eviction proceedings against the Scouts because the organization won’t permit gay participants and has refused to pay fair-market rent.
Last June, after an eight-day federal trial, a jury ruled that the city violated the Scouts’ constitutional rights when citing the club’s antigay policy as a reason for the eviction.
As the prevailing party, the Scouts are seeking almost $1 million in legal fees from the city, which they say they’ll forgive if the sale is consummated.
The LGBT leadership meeting with Nutter will be held at City Hall on March 9. It’s expected to last about an hour.
The Rev. Nate Walker, a spokesperson for RLASD, is optimistic about the meeting, saying he views it as an opportunity for Nutter to embrace equal opportunity for all.
“A morally grounded leader doesn’t fall prey to discrimination,” Walker told PGN. “We need creative, morally grounded leadership that will find alternatives to discrimination. You cannot put a monetary value on the fight against discrimination. The value of human dignity far outweighs any legal costs that might be incurred by appealing the jury’s verdict. And I truly believe that an appeal most likely will result in affirming equality.”
Nutter’s press secretary, Mark McDonald, said the March 9 meeting is closed to the public. To his knowledge, no representatives from the Scouts have been invited.
“A number of people from different groups wanted to have this meeting, and to talk to the mayor,” McDonald told PGN. “This is the mayor reaching out to them, and to hear their concerns about the Boy Scouts proposal.”
Pro-bono attorneys for the city have filed post-trial motions urging U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter to overturn the verdict or, in the alternative, to hold a new trial.
The city contends that Buckwalter conducted the trial in a manner that minimized the right of the city to set antibias standards — and that overstated the right of the Scouts to discriminate on public property.
Last August, attorneys for the Scouts filed reply briefs, urging Buckwalter to leave the jury verdict undisturbed and to require that the city pay them $960,000 in legal fees.
Buckwalter has yet to rule on the motions.
The judge told PGN this week that he has no timeframe for rendering decisions.
“I do not have a standard procedure in cases such as this one where settlement negotiations take place after a trial,” Buckwalter replied in an e-mail.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, who signed the RLASD letter, said she recognized the historic contributions of the Scouts, but that they don’t excuse the club’s exclusionary policies.
“The Scouts are an historic and wonderful organization. But at the end of the day, they’re discriminating, and the city of Philadelphia cannot countenance and support this,” said Elwell. “We’re talking about a city-owned building. They should no longer have the privilege of occupying it. If the Scouts stop discriminating, I have no problem with them being in the building.”
City officials should stand strong against anti-LGBT bias, Elwell added.
“This needs to be pursued to the end. It’s unfortunate that significant city funds have been expended, but so be it. The situation needs to come to an end that honors the dignity and equal rights of all Philadelphians.”
R. Duane Perry, a member of Philadelphians Against Subsidized Discrimination, said about 20 LGBT leaders met Feb. 23 and reached a consensus that Nutter should pursue an appeal of the jury verdict.
“We decided that we wanted to urge the mayor to take an appeal,” Perry said. “I’m very hopeful that Mayor Nutter will decide to do the right thing. While much of the nation appears to be moving into the 21st century in terms of LGBT rights, we wouldn’t want the city moving in the opposite direction.”
Some LGBT activists have suggested the Scouts could remain in the building if they purchased it for the estimated $2-million market value.
Others have suggested the Scouts could stay in the building if they limit their activities inside to Learning for Life, an educational and vocational program that purportedly doesn’t discriminate against individuals protected by the city’s Fair Practices Act.
The Scouts declined to comment on those options.
City Councilmember Darrell L. Clarke has introduced a bill that would sell the property to the Scouts for $500,000 — providing the Scouts allowed LGBT groups access to the facility.
But Perry said the community-access proviso isn’t workable.
“What self-respecting LGBT organization is going to bring their client into a building where people are discriminating against them?” he posed. “It sounds like a good idea on the surface: ‘OK, let’s open it up and share space.’ But the reality is completely different. If the KKK opened up its property to Jews and blacks, would that be OK? I think that’s not a workable solution, though it certainly sounds good on paper.”
At press time, a public hearing hadn’t been scheduled for Clarke’s bill.
Timothy Cwiek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.