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White House steps in on church-school case

The Bush administration is opposing Montgomery County public school officials' decision to bar a group from sending students home with fliers promoting an evangelist club.

The Justice Department filed an amicus, or "friend of the court," brief June 11 supporting the Child Evangelism Fellowship Inc.'s lawsuit against county school administrators who rejected handbills for the Good News Club, which offers students a once-a-week Bible study and religious-oriented recreational activities.

Child Evangelism Fellowship Inc. -- which is based in Warrenton, Mo., and oversees the after-school club -- tried to send fliers home with elementary school students at Mill Creek Towne in Rockville and Clearspring in Damascus.

School officials would not allow the fliers, saying the evangelical group was trying to force teachers and students to accept "proselytizing materials." School attorneys have said that distributing the fliers would violate the Constitution's separation of church and state because the group aims to have children identify Jesus as their Savior.

Supporters of the group's mission say the school system's keeping the fliers out of children's backpacks is tantamount to discrimination, because nonreligious groups with similar activities have been approved to distribute promotional fliers.

"This is a service that is widely available to other organizations," said Nathan Adams, an attorney for the fellowship. "This is not an instance where a religious group is seeking special treatment."

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond is hearing the group's appeal. A lower court, the U.S. District Court for Maryland, ruled against Child Evangelism Fellowship by not granting a preliminary injunction against the Montgomery County school system. The injunction would have required the schools to distribute the fliers.

"It's clear that the evangelical group is intending to use the fliers as a recruiting tool for students to join the group," said school system spokesman Brian Porter.

The school system is reconsidering its policy for distributing materials. It is now limited to materials directly related to education and notices about health, nonprofit groups, community sports and recreation activities, day care and school-system partnerships.

Justice Department spokesman Jorge Martinez told the Associated Press the fliers are informational and not recruiting tools.

"The Good News Clubs literature does not proselytize," he said. "It basically describes what takes place at the meetings, when they are held and where."

Child Evangelism Fellowship of Maryland v. Montgomery County School District is one of several similar cases involving the after-school club filed across the country. In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Constitution does not prohibit Good News Clubs from meeting in elementary schools.

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