- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 3, 2004

The local chapter of the Boy Scouts of America is challenging a new Montgomery County school board policy that bars the youth group — among other religious and community organizations — from distributing fliers in student backpacks.

“We just hope that we would be able to gain equal access in the distribution of fliers,” said Matthew J. Budz, assistant director of field service for the Boy Scouts’ National Capital Area Council. “And that all nonprofits get that access, not just a selected few.”

In a three-page letter to county schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, Mr. Budz says a federal law prohibits the school system from excluding its fliers from backpack distribution. He also asks Mr. Weast to rescind the policy.

The school board on Thursday voted 7-1 to allow backpack distribution only for school-, county-, state- or federal-related materials or from parent-teacher groups, licensed day care providers and nonprofit sports leagues. Materials from other groups, including the Boy Scouts, must be placed on a communal table in schools.

The board approved the policy after a federal appeals court last month ruled against the school system in a case in which a conservative Christian youth group had sought to distribute its literature in county schools.

“We realize that we did not have a policy about fliers,” said school board Vice President Patricia O’Neill of Bethesda. “We were concerned about what was going home in our children’s backpacks because some organizations were more abusive than others … You don’t want to kill too many trees by Xeroxing excessive amounts of fliers.”

Montgomery and Fairfax counties are the only local jurisdictions with such a policy. But Fairfax also allows several nonprofit groups, including the Boy Scouts, to distribute materials in backpacks.

Mrs. O’Neill said the school board adopted the policy in reaction to the Good News Club’s promotion of a prayer-centered after-school program at two elementary schools.

Last month, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled that the school system violated the group’s free-speech rights in 2001, when it decided not to distribute its fliers. The school system had distributed fliers for dozens of other groups, however.

Mr. Budz said the new policy violates the Boy Scouts of America Equal Access Act, which says no public schools or local educational agencies may “discriminate against any group affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America.”

“We would prefer to resolve these issues through dialogue so that all nonprofits are allowed,” said Mr. Budz, stressing that the Scouts are exploring all options.

Mr. Weast could not be reached for comment yesterday.

School board President Sharon W. Cox and members Kermit V. Burnett, Charles Haughey, Henry Lee, Gabe Romero, Sagar Sanghvi and Mrs. O’Neill voted for the policy. Walter N. Lange voted against it.

“I think it is important to realize that backpacks are not the only means of communications,” Mrs. O’Neill said. “We believe that, with this policy in place, there will be clear guidelines for what can and cannot go via children’s backpacks.”

Mr. Budz said the Scouts rely heavily on distributing fliers through the school system to students as many as three times a year to maintain its membership of about 10,600 in the county.

“We line up with the same mission as the Montgomery County’s schools — teaching character, physical fitness and values. That is our foundation,” he said. “And if we are denied access, our membership will see a decline because our main means of communicating with parents and youth is through backpack mail.”

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