The Haverford Township Board of Commissioners will publicly discuss on Monday its reasoning behind shuttering the Bon Air Fire Company for its refusal to part with a volunteer who had admitted he tried to join the extremist organization Proud Boys.
In an interview Friday night, Board President Andy Lewis said he will deliver remarks on the closing of Bon Air and a potential resolution to the situation that surfaced last month and prompted town officials to close the fire company Wednesday.
“We’re trying to resolve the situation," Lewis, commissioner of Ward 5, said. “We hope to be in a good place on Monday, but we don’t know. Anything’s possible."
Lewis said he hoped to bring Bon Air back in service, "subject to certain conditions being met.”
He declined to elaborate but nevertheless stood by the township’s decision to indefinitely shut down Bon Air after the fire company’s board insisted on keeping volunteer Bruce McClay Jr.
The township has said McClay told officials in August that he had been trying to join the Proud Boys, an organization that has been referred to as a hate group.
“If he wants to have those views, he’s certainly entitled to those views, but not as a volunteer supported in any way by taxpayers," Lewis said. “There’s photos of him on the internet displaying the white supremacist hand gesture. Proud Boys don’t claim to be white supremacists, so I don’t know what came first, but that’s pretty compelling evidence.”
McClay, a lieutenant at Bon Air and vice president of its board, has not responded to efforts to reach him for comment.
On Wednesday, Haverford Township announced in a statement that the 37-member, all-volunteer Bon Air Fire Company would be removed from service indefinitely after it refused to accept McClay’s resignation on Aug. 15. A week later, Bon Air’s lawyer informed the township’s lawyer that McClay had done nothing wrong and that the board would not part ways with him.
The Bon Air Fire Company — which like the township has not formally identified McClay as the volunteer who tried to join the Proud Boys — said in a now-deleted statement that "he had not engaged in any activity in violation of the mission of the Fire Company to serve the Haverford community.”
In its statement, Bon Air said McClay, an esteemed six-year member of the fire company, attended “some social gatherings” for the Proud Boys but ultimately decided to not associate himself with the organization “after he learned more about the group’s beliefs.”
Bon Air said McClay had not broken laws or committed crimes by fraternizing with the Proud Boys.
“Some of the bedrock rights we all share as American citizens are the rights to freely assemble and to freely associate with others,” the fire company said in its statement.
Township officials have said they would have not closed Bon Air if the board accepted McClay’s resignation.
“Given the fire company board’s failure to act, the Township is compelled to take action,” Township Manager David R. Burman said in a statement issued Wednesday, the same day Haverford ordered Bon Air to cease all business, and repossessed the company’s three firetrucks and other fire equipment. The township’s four remaining fire companies, all of which are volunteer-based, will handle Bon Air’s calls.
Bon Air’s lawyers, Robert Donohue and Sean Murphy, did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Jim Byrne or Kelly Sullivan, attorneys for Haverford Township.
“We’re working with Bon Air to resolve it," Ward 9 Commissioner William F. Wechsler said Friday. "We’re working together to come up with a mutual resolution.”
The Proud Boys, which operate by the principles that they are “Western chauvinists who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world” and “long for the days when girls were girls and men were men,” have a history of members sharing white nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric. Members were present at the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.
The township said McClay had told them that he had passed two of the four steps for initiation into the Proud Boys, including being hazed. A website that identifies members of the Philadelphia chapter of the Proud Boys depicts McClay at social functions.
The dispute between the town and Bon Air is pitting Haverford’s antidiscrimination policy and First Amendment rights against each other, Eve R. Keller, an associate attorney specializing in employment and labor law at Folkman Law Offices in Cherry Hill, said Friday.
“Sometimes local municipalities will craft their own antidiscrimination policies that go beyond what is in place by the federal government or the state, and that’s the case for Haverford,” she said. “They have their own ordinance that guarantees fair and equal treatment under the law to all people of the township.”
“While there’s First Amendment rights that people enjoy, there’s a balancing act between the First Amendment — freedom of association, freedom of speech — and then antidiscrimination policies,” Keller continued. "And so this is sort of a case where these things have come up against each other, where the antidiscrimination policies in Haverford Township, which the township is trying to enforce, is sort of knocking up against the potential First Amendment rights of this volunteer firefighter.”
The case, she said, appears to be an uncommon one.
If Bon Air was to challenge the town in court, she said, it could allege a violation of contract — if one exists — or if there is evidence that residents are not being served because the company is no longer in service.
Alternatively, Keller said, McClay could potentially allege a violation of his First Amendment rights.
“There are limitations on those First Amendment rights," Keller said. The township “can infringe on those sort of rights if they have a compelling interest. And one of those compelling reasons is antidiscrimination policies.”