City moving on Scouts' eviction

City moving on Scouts' eviction

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City officials are seeking the immediate eviction of a local Boy Scouts chapter from a city-owned building, though the Scouts maintain their federal anti-bias lawsuit should take precedence over the eviction action.

In an Aug. 19 motion for summary judgment, city attorneys told Common Pleas Judge Mark I. Bernstein that no federal judge would allow the Cradle of Liberty Council to remain indefinitely in its headquarters, at 231-251 N. 22nd St., under the current arrangements.

Thus, Bernstein shouldn’t postpone ruling on the city’s eviction request for fear of interfering with the Scouts’ federal case, city attorneys argued.

If the judge grants the request and the Scouts refuse to vacate the building, the city would need to seek the assistance of the Sheriff’s Office to enforce the eviction, city attorneys say.

The Scouts built the facility in question and have occupied it rent-free since 1928 under an ordinance enacted by Philadelphia City Council.

But in 2007, Council terminated the arrangement because the Scouts’ antigay membership policy conflicts with the city’s gay-rights ordinance.

In lieu of eviction, Council offered the Scouts the option of paying $200,000 annual rent — fair-market value — which the Scouts rejected as too expensive.

City attorneys say the most the Scouts could get from a federal judge would be low-rent occupancy in an alternate city-owned building, but not the 22nd Street property.

“No court can reverse the express terms of the 1928 ordinance to give the Scouts a property right that has already been terminated by the city,” city attorneys maintained in court papers.

If a federal judge rules the Scouts have been discriminated against, there are alternate properties for them to occupy without giving them use of the 22nd Street building, city attorneys said.

However, the Scouts contend it’s possible a federal judge will allow them to stay in the 22nd Street building under the current arrangements.

In an Aug. 14 motion, counsel for the Scouts urged Bernstein to dismiss the eviction case and defer to U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter, who’s deciding whether the city is discriminating against the chapter.

“[The Scouts] seek an injunction [from Buckwalter] to prevent ejectment from the property and not simply access to any city real estate,” stated attorneys for the Scouts in court papers.

The Scouts say the city is discriminating against them for exercising their constitutional right to association. The Scouts are citing a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that reaffirmed their right to set their own membership standards.

But city attorneys argue the 2000 ruling doesn’t address whether municipalities must allow the Scouts to occupy city buildings without paying fair-market rent.

In court papers, the Scouts’ attorneys called the city “stubborn” and “unreasonable” for not dropping the eviction action in state court.

Bernstein has not yet ruled on the requests.

In a related matter, city attorneys have asked Bernstein to schedule a trial on the back-rent issue: The city wants the Scouts to pay what’s due since June 2, 2008.

The Scouts call the rent request “punitive” and say the issue could be decided by Buckwalter when he rules on the discrimination suit.

City attorneys responded by noting that while Buckwalter is expected to rule on the discrimination claim, he hasn’t promised to rule on the back-rent issue.

If the city withdraws its eviction request in state court — and Buckwalter ultimately declines to rule on the back-rent issue — the city would need to file a new back-rent request in state court, city attorneys contend.

Andrew Chirls, an LGBT attorney has been following the dispute, said he appreciates that city attorneys are trying to speed up the eviction.

“I’m pleased that the court papers they’re filing indicate that they’re taking steps to move the case along and get it resolved,” Chirls said.

Tim Cwiek can be reached at (215) 625-8501 ext. 208.

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