Judge OKs extension for Scouts case

Judge OKs extension for Scouts case

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A federal judge has granted a two-month extension for both sides to gather evidence in a case that could determine whether the local Boy Scouts chapter remains in a city-owned building.

On April 7, U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter signed a revised scheduling order for the case, postponing the discovery deadline from April 6 to June 5.

The discovery phase allows both sides in a legal dispute to gather as much relevant evidence as possible for potential use in the upcoming trial.

The Cradle of Liberty chapter has occupied a city-owned building on the Ben Franklin Parkway near 22nd Street since 1928. But the chapter doesn’t permit openly gay participants — a policy that is at odds with the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance.

That ordinance, enacted in 1982, forbids antigay discrimination in a variety of venues, including city-owned buildings. For several years, LGBT activists implored city officials to enforce the ordinance and remove the Scouts from the building or have them pay fair-market rent.

Last year, in response to those pleas, city officials told the Scouts they must begin paying $200,000 annual rent for the building by June 1, 2008, or vacate the premises.

Rather than cooperating with that request, the Scouts filed a federal lawsuit in May 2008, claiming their constitutional rights were being violated by the rental demand.

Shortly after the Scouts filed suit against the city, the city filed an eviction action against the Scouts in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court. But that case remains pending and the evidence gathered in the federal case may be used in the state case.

The federal case was assigned to Buckwalter, who last fall rejected a motion by city officials to dismiss the entire case as meritless — although he did toss out some of the Scouts’ claims.

In December, Buckwalter issued an initial scheduling order, which included the April 6 discovery deadline and a targeted trial date of Nov. 16, 2009.

But due to a joint request from both sides, Buckwalter’s new scheduling order establishes a June 5 discovery deadline and a targeted trial date of Dec. 8, 2009.

According to Buckwalter’s general operating procedures, available on the U.S. District Court of Eastern District of Pennsylvania Web site, he expects the discovery phase in a typical case discovery to be completed within six months of the date the case was filed — unless there are “compelling reasons” for an extension.

In the Scouts’ case, Buckwalter will permit the discovery phase to be completed more than a year after the case was filed, without publicly specifying any “compelling reason” for the extension.

Buckwalter declined to comment for this story.

Arthur M. Kaplan, an LGBT activist who’s worked on the Scouts issue for several years, said the case seems to be languishing. “This case could go on ad nauseum,” Kaplan told PGN. “It’s pretty clear that it isn’t a high priority for the city solicitor.”

But Kaplan stopped short of criticizing Mayor Nutter.

“Whether this delay says anything about the mayor, I have no idea. But it’s obvious to me that the city solicitor feels no sense of urgency,” Kaplan stated.

City Solicitor Shelley R. Smith declined to comment for this story.

Doug Oliver, a spokesperson for Mayor Nutter, also had no comment.

Kaplan also expressed frustration with the lack of information he’s been able to elicit from city attorneys about the progress of the case.

“One would expect more transparency, given the public interest in seeing this case brought to a prompt and successful conclusion,” he said.

Stephen A. Glassman, chair of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, urged city officials to move forward with the case as quickly as possible.

“As Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently stated, justice delayed is justice denied,” Glassman said. “We urge the Nutter administration to work with all deliberate speed to press forward with a vigorous pursuit of this case, in order to successfully resolve this ongoing discriminatory activity against LGBT people in Philadelphia.”

Glassman said acts of bias can damage entire communities.

“The purpose of our civil-rights laws is not only to address individual acts of discrimination, but to vindicate the interests of our society, in general, with regard to ongoing acts of prejudice and bias. It is imperative for the well-being of the city that this case be expeditiously concluded.”

Lynn G. Zeitlin, executive director of Equality Advocates Pennsylvania, said she’s confident Nutter is committed to enforcing the city’s gay-rights ordinance.

“We applaud the Nutter administration’s determination to enforce the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance, so that city-owned property is utilized in accordance with non-discrimination policies,” Zeitlin said. “This [discovery] extension, hopefully, will lead to the correct outcome in the case, which is to enforce the city’s ordinance.”

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

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