System Defends Against Religious Group's Challenge

June 23, 2003
Attorneys for the Montgomery County Board of Education have filed a defense in a case that now involves the United States Department of Justice's support of an evangelical religious group's efforts to force the Montgomery County Public Schools to distribute its recruitment flyers through the backpacks of elementary school students.

The attorneys filed the defense in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond on Friday, June 20, in response to the religious group's appeal of a ruling by the United States District Court for the District of Maryland. The appeal challenged the district court's decision not to grant a preliminary injunction that would have compelled the school system to distribute the flyers.

In the school system's defense, attorneys argued that the evangelical group is attempting to force teachers and students to accept and distribute “proselytizing materials” during the school day in violation of the constitutional requirements for a separation of church and state.

Child Evangelism Fellowship of Maryland, which sponsors the Good News Clubs as an afterschool activity, originally had sued in federal district court over the school system's refusal to distribute the club's recruitment flyers that invite children to meet “weekly to hear Bible stories, play games, sing songs, and memorize Scripture,” among other religious activities. The case is still pending in the district court.

In the meantime, the request for a preliminary injunction has attracted the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, which filed an amicus brief in support of the religious group's efforts to overturn the lower court's preliminary ruling. The case, Child Evangelism Fellowship of Maryland, et al., v. Montgomery County School District, et al., is one of several filed across the country by the evangelical group and others. In 2001, the United States Supreme Court held that the Constitution did not prohibit Good News Clubs from meeting in elementary schools after school.

The group's activities after school already were permitted in Montgomery County and, in fact, the group has sponsored afterschool clubs at two elementary schools this past school year. The group also is permitted to display flyers and other materials, as are other outside organizations, at community functions after school, such as back-to-school nights and other community and parent meetings. Moreover, the group can place materials on community information tables at schools.

The school system is currently reviewing other options for deciding what is to be distributed home to parents through their children's backpacks. The distribution is now limited to materials directly related to education and notices about health, nonprofit organizations, community sports and recreation activities, day care, and school system partnerships.

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