Schools struggling with `mail' system

Montgomery lawsuit makes fliers in backpacks problematic

Board is considering a pair of options

June 29, 2005|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Board of Education is struggling with who can have access to the school system's "backpack mail" service.

For years, the school system has sent home in student backpacks, hundreds of fliers from organizations -- except for material that proselytizes. A continuing legal challenge in Montgomery County, however, has forced the school system to rethink that distribution system.

Procedures limit the organizations that can use this service to school programs, government agencies and nonprofit groups. Because the Constitution requires separation of church and state, the school system allows religious organizations to distribute information as long as the material does not proselytize.

"We thought we had some leeway over that," said Courtney Watson, the school board chairman.

Last week, the school board narrowed from a list of recommendations offered by a committee two options for consideration:

The first option would limit distribution to governmental agencies. Nonprofit groups would be allowed to disseminate only information related to an approved school fund-raiser.

The other alternative would be less restrictive, allowing government agencies, parent-teacher organizations, licensed day-care operations on school campuses and nonprofit sports youth leagues to distribute fliers -- guidelines that follow Montgomery County's revised policy.

Montgomery County's school system revamped its distribution process as a case challenging its procedures wound through the courts.

In 2001, Child Evangelism Fellowship sued the school system after it was denied permission to distribute leaflets that school officials claimed were proselytizing.

The group sought a temporary injunction, which was rejected by a U.S. District Court. Last summer, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reversed that ruling, saying that allowing the evangelical group to send fliers home would not likely violate separation of church and state.

The appeals court sent the case back to the lower court.

As committee members in Howard County were wrapping up work in March, a U.S. District Court ruled that the Montgomery County school system did not violate the First Amendment rights of the evangelical group.

The decision is being appealed.

Whichever option the Howard school board votes on at its meeting next month, Watson said the solution could be temporary as the case continues.

"The bottom line is our hands are tied," she said.

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