Let's Keep Rocking the Cradle of Liberty!
by Margaret Downey
GREATER PHILADELPHIA STORY-March/April 2004
It's hard to believe that twelve years have passed since the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia (FSGP)
began complaining about the special treatment the City of Philadelphia accords to the Cradle of Liberty Council
of the Boy Scouts of America (CoLBSA).
After I filed a discrimination complaint (Downey v. Boy Scouts of America) with the Pennsylvania Human
Relations Commission (PHRC), BSA's free use of city-owned property located at 22nd and Winter Streets, Philadelphia
was called into question. I urged that, since CoLBSA remains in violation of city anti-discrimination ordinances,
it should be looked upon as a ground why BSA must be deemed a 'public accommodation' for the purposes of my case.
It took nine years for PHRC to bring the case to trial. By that time BSA decided to stop calling themselves
a 'public' accommodation organization. To avoid losing a United States Supreme Court case (James Dale v. Boy Scouts
of America), BSA declared itself 'private' in its briefs to the United States Supreme Court.
\ The 'private organization' status gave BSA every right to impose its own membership criteria and they
did so with a vengeance when they were victorious in the case of James Dale v. Boy Scouts of America. The empowerment
of the Supreme Court decision set BSA off on a new course. Sympathizers to the gay and Atheist community were asked
to leave the organization, Unitarians were told to abandon their 1984 tolerance resolution (or else!), and a new
statement of religious principles was enacted.
Prejudice against gays and Atheists was no longer a dirty little secret. Surprisingly, BSA continued to
receive unallocated United Way funding, municipal and federal grants and gratuities, endorsement from elected officials,
and recruitment favoritism in public schools. Locally, BSA continues to use a building (Beaux Arts Building at
22nd and Winter Streets) owned by the City of Philadelphia totally rent free. This has been going on since 1926!
On May 2 , 2003, FSGP and Scouting For All (S4A) co-hosted a press conference at the Philadelphia Ethical
Society. The press conference kicked off a three day protest that coincided with BSA's annual convention being
held at the Marriott Hotel in Philadelphia.
Speakers at the press conference represented the concerns of both the Atheist and gay communities. FSGP
and S4A thank the following people for their compelling five minute speeches:
Executive Director, PA Lesbian and Gay Task Force
President, Scouting for All
Representative, Coalition for Inclusive Scouting
Founder, Secular Humanists and Atheists of Lehigh Valley
Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers
Daniel J. Holmes
Eagle Scout and Assistant Scoutmaster, Troop 414
President, American Atheists
President, Philadelphia chapter of PFLAG
Eagle Scout and BSA District Executive
President, Furness High School Gay/Straight Alliance
Reverend Benjamin Maucere
Co-Minister, First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia
President, Q Force
Coordinator, Interfaith Working Group
Several television crews and about six newspaper journalists were in attendance. We expected good media coverage
later that day and were hopeful that newspapers would convey our message accurately and professionally.
That night several local news programs featured award winning Boy Scout Gregory Lattera, dressed in full
Scouting regalia, publicly confessing that he was 'gay and Atheist.' He came out of the closet that day at the
press conference and set in motion a challenge to CoLBSA to accept or oust him.
Just weeks earlier CoLBSA attempted to defy BSA's national office and pass its own anti-discrimination
policy. That policy could have been used to justify keeping Lattera in the organization, but the national office
forced CoLBSA to abandon its anti-discrimination stance. The 'down-the-line' structure of BSA forbids any member,
volunteer, and/or council to go against national policy.
News stories reported the Lattera struggle as a 'gay' issue only. Journalists completely ignored the fact
that Atheists are discriminated against, too. Even though FSGP co-sponsored the three day protest effort, there
was not one mention of bigotry against Atheists by television and print media journalists.
Some members of FSGP wrote 'Letters to the Editor' pointing out the oversight, but for the most part the
media continued to ignore the Atheist discrimination issue. Philadelphia Inquirer journalist Linda K. Harris wrote
article after article tracking the progress of Lattera, CoLBSA's attempts to pass an anti-discrimination policy,
and the City's rent-free arrangement with CoLBSA, but she never mentioned two important words in her coverage of
the issue ' 'and Atheists.'
In frustration, I called Harris and asked her why she could not add 'and Atheists' in her BSA articles.
I told her that she was not telling the full story when she failed to include discrimination against Atheists in
her description of BSA bigotry.
Harris said that Atheists are 'under the radar screen.' This infuriated me because FSGP had worked hard
to co-host a three day protest event and all we asked was that our plight be recognized equally with the gay issue.
The uncomfortable phone call ended without a promise from Harris to report the facts accurately so that night
I composed an Action Alert Hot Line message requesting that people on line should immediately contact The Philadelphia
Inquirer and/or Harris so that Atheists' concerns would be on the 'radar screen.'
The Action Hot Line effort worked! Harris began to add the words 'and Atheists' in her coverage of the
events. Several Atheist 'Letters to the Editor' were published as well. We would soon learn, however, that staying
on the 'radar screen' would take effort and diligence.
Negotiation talks began between CoLBSA and the City Solicitor after the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania
announced that it would no longer fund BSA through unallocated community funds. Pew Charitable Trusts also pulled
funding from CoLBSA and several other granting organizations began re-evaluating their endorsement of BSA.
Many recipients of the FSGP's Action Alert Hot Line took the time to send a letter to the Philadelphia
City Council, the Mayor of Philadelphia, and Nelson A. Diaz the City Solicitor to point out discrepancies between
city anti-discrimination statutes and BSA's biased membership policies. Correspondence from FSGP members helped
to substantiate concerns expressed to Mayor Street in letters from both S4A and FSGP regarding the 'sweetheart
deal' BSA has with the City of Philadelphia.
After some time passed with no acknowledgment or response from anyone, FSGP and S4A decided to conduct
another rally. On October 9, 2003 some members of S4A and FSGP gathered outside CoLBSA to voice their concern about
the city's entanglement with the BSA. During the two- hour assembly, passersby were given literature and several
participants stepped to the microphone to speak. Television and radio coverage was good, but sparse.
S4A's Assistant Northeastern Regional Director, Lori Martin, and I delivered a letter to the Scout Executive,
Bill Dwyer, who graciously agreed to visit with us regarding the issue. Dwyer showed us two large stacks of faxes
he received from BSA supporters. They were outraged that CoLBSA had even attempted to adopt an anti-discrimination
policy. Most correspondents threatened to dissociate from CoLBSA if it became tolerant of gays and Atheists. Dwyer
seemed to be at the end of his rope and said that he was fine with our protest efforts, but was frustrated with
Dwyer asked about my son and wanted me to know that he was sure that I had reared a good citizen. I answered
that my son is an officer in the U.S. military, and patriotically upholds the United States Constitution.
Dwyer said that he did not understand the Atheist philosophy completely, but was sure that it did not fit
into the now 'private' BSA. I told him that his lack of understanding was precisely why Atheists should be included
in the program. 'America's youth must have an appreciation of diversity to make this country great,' I argued.
Dwyer nodded in agreement. The vacuum in his eyes, however conveyed a total lack of interest.
We left the CoLBSA building and walked to City Hall to deliver a letter to Mayor Street. Mayor Street did
not greet us personally, but the many thumbs-up greetings we received during our seven block stroll made everything
By the end of 2003, the City Solicitor and CoLBSA entered into what I call 'a gentlemen's agreement.' CoLBSA
adopted a 'don't ask ' don't tell' policy. This is the same policy adopted by the New York BSA when the same free-rent
issue arose there. The agreement reads, 'All of our members repeatedly pledge to respect all people and defend
the rights of others. Prejudice, intolerance, and unlawful discrimination in any form are unacceptable within the
ranks of the Greater New York Councils, Boy Scouts of America.'
The statement is a sham. We must continue to insist that CoLBSA pay rent or leave the premises!!