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U.S. Backs Faith Group

Organization is trying to force a Maryland school district to send fliers about an after-school Bible club home in students' backpacks.

June 28, 2003|Jay Mathews | Washington Post

The Bush administration has joined with a national religious group in an attempt to force the Montgomery County, Md., school district to put recruitment fliers for an after-school Bible club in children's backpacks, school officials said.

The U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division filed an amicus brief June 11 in federal court supporting the effort of the Child Evangelism Fellowship of Maryland to promote its Good News Clubs in two Montgomery County elementary schools: Mill Creek Towne in Rockville and Clearspring in Damascus.

The district revealed the federal action Monday as it released its own legal documents, filed June 20 in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, to try to keep the fliers out of backpacks. Justice Department officials could not be reached for comment.

"An integral part of CEF's evangelical mission is to locate children who have not yet accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior," the school district's attorneys wrote.

"Requiring teachers to force students to accept and distribute CEF's materials would result in the unconstitutional coercion of the students to proselytize on CEF's behalf."

The Bush administration brief, submitted by Assistant Atty. Gen. Ralph Boyd and three staff attorneys, said in part: "CEF offers students educational, cultural and recreational opportunities that are similar to activities offered by other community organizations that submit fliers for inclusion in the [students'] take-home folders.

"Through its Good News Clubs, CEF strives to foster self-esteem in youth and to instill morals and character in children while providing a positive recreational experience.

"That CEF does these things from a religious viewpoint does not change the fact that its activities meet the [school] board's criteria for inclusion in the take-home folders."

Child Evangelism Fellowship has led a national movement for the rights of religiously oriented taxpayers and their right to use public school property like other nonprofit groups do.

Attorneys for the group, based in Warrenton, Mo., said their fliers are no different from the notices sent home in backpacks by the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts and the Young Men's Christian Assn.

Montgomery school officials said they have limited backpack materials to those directly related to education and "notices about health, nonprofit organizations, community sports and recreation activities." The district has allowed the religious group to post notices on school property.

U.S. courts have generally ruled that if a school district provides an open forum for many different groups, religious organizations must be allowed to use it.

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