Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The youth of Philadelphia are in danger. Nearly 112,000 children — over 30 percent of children in the city — live beneath the poverty line. There are as many as 3,900 homeless families in Philadelphia. Only about half of Philadelphia ninth-graders graduate from high school within four years, and last year’s state standardized math and reading tests came back to 11th graders in Philadelphia public schools with 70 percent of scores below proficient. In 2006, 1,030 young Philadelphians between the ages of 7 and 24 were shot; 179 kids were murdered.

On such a battlefield, it would make sense for the City of Philadelphia to partner with churches and non-profit organizations to provide after-school programs, youth sports leagues, mentoring, and summer camp opportunities — anything to keep kids off the streets, away from drugs and in school. To that end, hundreds of Philadelphia churches are involved in school safety and mentoring programs. People of faith volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters through the Amachi Program. Recently, outgoing Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson began recruiting thousands of male volunteers to help patrol the worst neighborhoods of the city.

But perhaps no single private organization has done more in Philadelphia to protect the lives of young people than the Boy Scouts, which claims 64,000 participants in the city. For nearly 100 years, Scouting has taught boys to be responsible, self-governing young men: “Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”

So, when city leaders announced in recent months that the Cradle of Liberty Boy Scouts Council must abandon its long-held position of excluding homosexual leaders and members if it is to keep its headquarters building at a rent of $1 per year, the fight to save the children of Philadelphia took a turn for the worst. For almost eight decades, the Scouts have occupied a Beaux-Arts building that they built at the corner of 22nd and Winter Streets, on land the city granted them “in perpetuity.” Today, claims of political correctness apparently outweigh claims of perpetuity. Since the Scouts’ membership policy was said to conflict with the city’s nondiscrimination code, liberal city leaders saw an opportunity. In June, the city council voted 16-1 to cancel the Boy Scouts’ $1 per year lease, and in October, a new rate was announced: $200,000 per year.

This month, Philadelphia’s newly inaugurated mayor, Michael Nutter, joined the attack on the Boy Scouts. “So as far as I’m concerned, it’s really one or the other: change your policy or pay full market rent,” he told the Evening Bulletin. But there’s one other unfortunate option: the Cradle of Liberty Council, unable to afford the massive rent charges, will likely have to find a new location for its headquarters — a strain on budgets already suffering from United Way and Pew Charitable Trust funding cuts (also related to the Scouts’ membership policy).

There are two problems with the city’s case against the Boy Scouts. First, it is absurd to expect that a private organization would change its fundamental moral code as a precondition to continuing its 80-year-old partnership. In fact, it is not an option for the Boy Scouts to admit homosexuals, since membership policies are established by the national Scouting organization, and the Scout Oath has always included the words “morally straight.” Furthermore, a public-private partnership does not turn the private group into a public group; it is a mutual exchange, not a one-way relationship of force. The Boy Scouts goes about its private business of teaching kids to be responsible citizens; the city has recognized the Scouts’ public service to the community by allowing it to use public property at low cost.

Second, the social cost of turning the Boy Scouts out of their historic building will be much higher than they will have to pay for a new building, and most of the cost will be borne by the public. A 2006 study by Ram Cnaan at the University of Pennsylvania found that Philadelphia churches and synagogues provide social services that would cost the city over a quarter-billion dollars per year.

There’s no telling how many millions of dollars the Boy Scouts save the city each year. All the mentoring and volunteering and teaching and leading and serving that goes on in the lives of Philadelphia’s 64,000 Scouting participants is ultimately priceless. But in social terms, Scouting helps to lower the crime rate in ways that the city itself could never do. More than that, Scouting prepares kids to lead successful, economically productive lives.

So one thing is self-evident in the Cradle of Liberty: The boys of Philadelphia need to come in from the crossfire on the streets to get involved with the local Boy Scout troop. And as long as the city is firing shots at the Boy Scouts, we can expect the crime rate to rise, and rise and rise.

Hans Zeiger, an Eagle Scout and assistant Scoutmaster is a senior fellow at the American Civil Rights Union.

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