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Jury rules Philadelphia Boy Scouts can keep their headquarters

By Sarah Hoye, CNN
  • Group can remain in their rent-free, city-owned building, jury says
  • City took issue with local chapter's refusal to reject national organization's ban on gay membership
  • Verdict comes after more than two years of legal wrangling
  • Local chapter seeking permanent injunction against eviction proceedings

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- A federal jury in Philadelphia says the Boy Scouts can stay.

After deliberating for nearly eight hours Wednesday, the jury found that the city of Philadelphia violated the local Boy Scouts' First Amendment rights by requiring the chapter to reject the national organization's ban on gay membership or face eviction from their downtown headquarters.

"The issues were complex, but the jury did their job," said Jason Gosselin, attorney for the local Scout chapter, the Cradle of Liberty Council. "What we would like to do is sit down with the city, put this in the past and find a way to coexist."

The jury's verdict came after a seven-day trial and more than two years of legal maneuvering in federal district court.

The city council in 2007 passed an ordinance to evict the Scouts and later went to court in June 2008 to do so, but Cradle filed the federal civil rights lawsuit in May 2008.

The Scouts were told by the city to pay $200,000 a year to lease the building or vacate the headquarters that have been located on city land, rent-free since 1928.

"We understand the (discrimination) policy ... but we definitely had issues with how they applied the policy," Gosselin said. "It was fundamentally unfair."

The city is "disappointed that the jury did not appreciate the city's obligation to deploy municipal resources in a manner that protects the rights of all of Philadelphia's citizens," Doug Oliver, a spokesman for Mayor Michael Nutter, said in an e-mail of Wednesday's ruling.

U.S. District Judge Ronald Buckwalter had issued an injunction in 2009 banning the city from evicting the Scouts until the federal lawsuit was resolved.

The local chapter's attorneys have asked for a permanent injunction from eviction proceedings, Gosselin said, and added that Cradle of Liberty will also seek a court order to have the city pay upwards of $800,000 in legal fees and expenses.

The lawsuit stems from a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says the Boy Scouts of America can exclude gay youth and troop leaders because the group is categorized as a "membership organization."

The city says the Cradle of Liberty Council's refusal to openly reject that national Scout policy violates a city charter.

"While the good work of the Boy Scouts cannot be disputed, the city remains steadfast in its commitment to prevent its facilities from being used to disadvantage certain groups," Oliver said.

Greg Lattera was expelled from the Philadelphia Boy Scouts in 2003 for being gay. At the time, the 18-year-old Lattera held the rank of Life Scout, one step below the organization's highest rank of Eagle Scout. He was also a camp counselor.

Lattera, who declined to name his Scout troop, said scouting has nothing to do with a building. He said he hopes the national Scouts will change their policy banning gays.

"I'm still the Scout that they turned into a man," said Lattera, now 25, who testified at the trial this week. "Gay Scouts are just as good as any other Scout. ... We love Scouts just as much as anybody else."