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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Gay Philanthropist Offers to Buy Boy Scouts’ Philly HQ

By Kilian Melloy -

Mel Heifetz
Mel Heifetz
A philanthropist and HRC Humanitarian of the Year Award recipient has offered to purchase the building that has served as the headquarters for the Philadelphia Boy Scouts for the last 80 years.

The building, which the Boy Scouts rents for a token $1 per year, is at the center of a settlement between the city and the Cradle of Liberty chapter of the Boy Scouts of America. Philadelphia had sought to compel the local Scouts chapter to abide by the city’s anti-discrimination policy and set aside a BSA policy that excludes gays, or else face a choice between eviction from the city-owned property or paying the $200,000 per year market value in rental fees.

The Cradle of Liberty chapter of the BSA responded with a lawsuit in federal court. The jury found last June that the city could not make that demand without violating the Scouts’ Constitutionally guaranteed freedom of association, and ruled against the city. The decision followed a 2000 Supreme Court ruling that affirmed that as a private organization, the Boy Scouts of America may discriminate against gays, atheists, and agnostics. Friction between the group and communities has continued in the ten years since that ruling, however, because the Boy Scouts often uses publicly funded buildings such as schools.

A subsequent deal between the city of Philadelphia and the Cradle of Liberty chapter of the BSA was struck to sell the building to the Scouts for $500,000--about half its estimated value. As part of the agreement, the Scouts would provide space for community events, including programs offered by GLBT organizations and diversity training, during the two years that the Scouts would have to pay the $500,000 fee for the building. In return, the Scouts would forego payment of nearly $1 million from the city to cover legal costs incurred by the federal suit.

The plan, which has been described by both sides as a "win-win," has attracted criticism, however. "Anything that rewards discrimination is just plain wrong. So to give the Boy Scouts the building for $500,000 is giving them a prize piece of Philadelphia property for a pittance," said the head of Equality Forum, Malcolm Lazin, who added his signature to a letter from a group of prominent citizens to the city mayor urging that the sale not proceed.

Now a prominent gay community leader and philanthropist has stepped in to offer to buy the building for $1.5 million, the Associated Press reported on Dec. 22.

Mel Heifetz, who made his fortune in real estate and who has been a leader and benefactor to Philadelphia’s GLBT community, said that he would donate the building to some other organization--one without discriminatory policies.

Heifetz--who himself was an Eagle Scout--has long been active in the city’s GLBT community, supporting a local AIDS charity and paying off the mortgage of the William Way Community Center, as well as establishing the city’s first gay hotel, The Alexander Inn. Heifetz was given the Human Rights Campaign’s Humanitarian of the Year Award in 2008.

It is likely that the city would be unable to accept Heifetz’s offer. A Dec. 22 Philadelphia Inquirer article said that with the deal in place, the city cannot back out now even if it might be inclined to do so.

"In light of the proposed settlement, the property is under agreement and is not available to buy," City Solicitor Shelley Smith announced.

The gesture serves to reinforce the message behind the offer. "I’m sure there are thousands and thousands of kids around this country that have been discriminated and thrown out of the Boy Scouts because they have been called gay," Heifetz told the press.

A proposed ordinance to complete the sale--under certain conditions, including a promise by the Scouts not to re-sell the building for at least 10 years--is now before the city council.
Kilian Melloy reviews media, conducts interviews, and writes commentary for EDGEBoston, where he also serves as Assistant Arts Editor.

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