Why the local council isn't telling the Boy Scouts of America to pack up its gay problem and take a hike.
PHILADELPHIA'S LOCAL BOY SCOUTS assembly is headquartered in a magnificent Beaux Arts building just a short hike--in scouting parlance--from several of the city's most celebrated cultural institutions. The city donated the prime real estate near Fairmount Park to the Boy Scouts of America in 1928, making it possible for the organization to construct its first-ever headquarters building.
Walking into the Bruce S. Marks Scout Resource Center is like entering the hallowed darkness of an Italian basilica. With its intricately tiled floor, vaulted ceiling, dark paneled walls and detailed frescos, the space is awe-inspiring. Engraved in stone near the building's entryway is a proclamation reflecting the BSA's long-standing mission: "The young are fortunate for they will see great things."
Perhaps this stone relief should be amended with the qualifier, " ... if they pledge their allegiance to God and are heterosexual." That's because the Scouts require that all members swear to be "morally straight" and worship a deity. For years the policy has been a source of contention in troops from California to Rhode Island and every state in between.
Now that tensions have reached a boiling point in Philadelphia, many scouting advocates believe the local Cradle of Liberty Council is in a perfect position to force reforms within the BSA.
So why isn't that happening?
MEMBERS OF THE COUNCIL'S BOARD of directors have publicly acknowledged their disagreement with the BSA's discriminatory practices. In May, just prior to the annual national scouting meeting, the Cradle of Liberty Council board drafted a nondiscrimination policy--the product of two years of meetings with community members and the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania. It even announced plans to admit gay and atheist boys into its ranks. But the moment BSA leadership ordered the Cradle of Liberty Council to enforce their policies barring gay and atheist boys, the council pulled an about face and even went so far as to oust an openly gay assistant scout master.
The BSA made certain the public knew all about the Philadelphia council's change of heart.
"The Cradle of Liberty Council of the Boy Scouts of America has issued a statement affirming that it will carry out all the policies as set forth by the National Council," a BSA press release reads. " ... BSA members are free to hold their own opinions, but we ask that they respect the values of the organization and abide by its policies, which they have agreed to by becoming members."
Lori Martin, assistant regional director for Scouting for All, a national nonprofit dedicated to ending the BSA's discriminatory policies, believes miscommunication doomed the Cradle of Liberty Council's May revolt. Board members intended to privately address policy revisions with BSA officials, she says, but the plan was leaked to the press before they had the chance.
"The council wanted a real nondiscrimination policy, but then they got read the riot act," Martin surmises. She says the BSA is a "down the line" private organization that simply will not stand for individual councils making policies independent of the national office. BSA headquarters did not return a call for comment on this story.
The council contends it has no choice but to follow national protocol. Fine, says the city, then we have no choice but to boot you from your headquarters.
In mid-September, City Solicitor Nelson Diaz determined that by allowing the Boy Scouts to occupy the property at 22nd and Winter streets rent-free, the city was violating its Fair Practices Ordinance, which prohibits "the use of public accommodations" by any person or organization that discriminates based on race, sexual orientation, religion or handicap.
If the Cradle of Liberty Council were forced to pay market-value rent for the building, it certainly couldn't afford the overhead. As one activist puts it, referring to the council's decision to cave to pressure, "All they need to do to keep their good deed is to do a good deed."
WITH 64,000 MEMBERS IN PHILADELPHIA, Delaware and Montgomery counties--about 50,000 of them within the city limits--the Cradle of Liberty Council is the Boy Scouts' third largest regional council. Scouting in Philadelphia isn't just about camping--there are also after-school programs, academic support and career development activities. Remove its urban presence and the Cradle of Liberty Council would wither.
Given such high stakes, why are local scout leaders hesitant to take a stand against discrimination on the national level?
"The local council could have enough influence to force the BSA to change its discriminatory policies," Martin says. "Philadelphia could start a groundswell."
If the Cradle of Liberty Council were to stand up to the BSA, "that could be the crisis that settles this whole thing," says Jay Mechling, a professor of American Studies at the University of California-Davis and author of On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth.