The straight and narrow

Observations on scouting

Philadelphia City Council has given its Boy Scouts an ultimatum: change your ways or take a hike. In two months, the 64,000-strong Philadelphia Boy Scout troop will be evicted from the grand Italian Renaissance headquarters it built for itself 80 years ago, and for which it pays $1 a year rent to the local authority. The issue is not the rent but the policy of the Boy Scouts of America, which bans homosexuals, agnostics and atheists from its ranks.

The Philadelphia Scouts, the third-largest group in the US, is caught between its national leadership, which sticks to a literal reading of the Scout oath "to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight", and the Philadelphia council, which by law cannot subsidise discrimination.

The city has given notice that after 31 May, when the lease runs out, it will let the Scout building for a market rent of $200,000 a year, either to the Scouts or another tenant.

The Philadelphia scouting controversy has rekindled the bitterness of 2000 following the Supreme Court's narrow five-to-four decision to back the Scouts' First Amendment rights over the individual rights of James Dale, a scoutmaster who was sacked because he is gay. The court declared that the Scouts operate much like a private club, with members invited to join and be approved by existing members, and that they were therefore free to bar those who offend them.

As a result, charities and public bodies with anti-discrimination policies stopped funding the Scouts. In Philadelphia, charities have withdrawn more than half a million dollars a year, resulting in a 50 per cent reduction in paid staff.

The Cradle of Liberty Council board, which runs the Philadelphia Scouts, tried in 2003 to opt out of the anti-gay dictum, but the national organisation overruled them. And as if to emphasise its willingness to pander to the homophobia of the national leadership, the Philadelphia Scouts promptly expelled an 18-year-old member who declared himself gay.

As May's eviction deadline nears, the leadership is looking for a way out. "We know there are gay Scouts. Of course there are," said their spokesman Jeff Jubelirer. "We tried to change the policy. National wouldn't allow us. We're trying to do the right thing."

With little prospect of compromise from the national Scout movement, the city has told the Philadelphia troop to shape up or pack up its tents. The ultimatum has angered social conservatives.

"The venerable institution of the Boy Scouts of America, with its clearly stated belief in God, adherence to a strict moral code and steadfast focus on shaping young men, is the trophy buck that the American Civil Liberties Union and their friends would like to hang above the fireplace," said the governor of Texas, Rick Perry.

He warned that Philadelphia is only the start. "Just the threat of a lawsuit has compelled certain public organisations to close their doors to the Scouts," he said. "City officials sympathetic to the secular agenda are creating policies that ban access to facilities for Scouts."

The victims in this skirmish are, inevitably, boys who would be Scouts. Scouting is credited with keeping boys at risk from becoming entangled in crime and drug use off the streets, which is why so many African-American church ministers in Philadelphia encourage boys to join.

But if the Philadelphia Scouts have to muster a further $199,999 a year to meet the rent, the shortfall will be made by cutting activities. "That's 30 new Cub Scout packs or 800 needy kids going to our summer camp," says Jubelirer.

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W W Norton (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it