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The city of San Diego can continue leasing public land to the Boy Scouts of America for $1 a year even though the group bans gays and atheists, a federal appeals court ruled.
A three-member panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday reversed a 2003 lower court ruling that said two leases violate state and federal constitutional bans on giving aid or preference to religious groups.
The city had leased a total of 18 1/2 acres of land in Balboa Park and Fiesta Island for a nominal fee to the Scouts.
In 2002, after a lawsuit was filed, the city reached a new 25-year lease with the Scouts to pay $1 a year along with a $2,500 annual administration fee to use Balboa Park, and to pay to maintain and improve the property, which includes a swimming pool and amphitheater.
The Scouts got the Fiesta Island property rent-free but spent about $2.5 million to build a Youth Aquatic Center that provides low-cost boat rentals.
The original leases were challenged in 2000 by lesbian and agnostic couples that argued that their sons were effectively banned from using the city land because of the scouting ban on gays, agnostics and atheists.
The two couples refused to allow their children to use the sites because the locations were under the oversight of the Scouts, which have an oath pledging duty to "God and my country," and a Scout Law that says members should be faithful to religious duties.
The lawsuit argued that the leases violated state and federal constitutional prohibitions on giving special preference to religious groups, and also violated federal and local laws against discrimination.
In 2003, a federal judge rejected the discrimination arguments but upheld the claims involving religion. Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the Scouts' appeal but the case continued.
The city of San Diego settled with the couples in 2004, agreeing to abide by the ultimate decision in the case.
In its ruling, the 9th Circuit appellate court concluded there was no evidence that the city's intention was to "advance religion."
"There is abundant evidence that its purpose was to provide facilities and services for youth activities," the court said.
The panel noted that the city leases 123 public properties to various nonprofit groups, including a Korean church, a Jewish organization and other groups that limit membership on the basis of race or ethnicity, including the Black Police Officers Association.
The ruling could help resolve the legal dispute that has lasted for more than a decade, Terry Trout, the Scout executive for the San Diego-Imperial Council, told The San Diego Union-Tribune.
"We're very pleased with the decision," he said. "We thought we had a strong case and anticipated it would be positive for us."
Attorneys for the couples that sued said they would analyze the ruling and decide whether to appeal.
"We remain committed to advocating for the city to end its subsidy for discrimination," David Loy, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego & Imperial Counties, told the newspaper.