- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 20, 2005

ELKTON, Md. (AP) — An art contest that asks pupils to draw pictures promoting marriage will be allowed to proceed in Cecil County, after school officials initially balked at joining the federal initiative.

The marriage debate began when a local group, called Marriage Works of Cecil County, sent the schools flyers offering pupils up to $350 to design billboards endorsing marriage.

The marriage group is part of a nationwide initiative undertaken by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families.

The initiative provides grants for public advertising campaigns promoting marriage, among other things.

“Healthy marriage is the best social program there is,” said Nicholas Ricciuti, director of the Cecil County Department of Social Services.

But school authorities were taken aback by the billboard contest and initially said they wouldn’t participate.

Barbara Wheeler, the school system’s associate superintendent for education services, told the Cecil Whig it would be inappropriate for the school system to promote a contest that deals with a subject outside the purview of the state curriculum.

“We’re in the business of instruction, so when material comes to my office, the first thing I look at is whether it is in line with the voluntary state curriculum we teach,” Miss Wheeler said. “I looked into our health curriculum and found that marriage is not something we teach.”

Educators also worried about what the art contest would say to children whose parents aren’t married.

“We don’t just distribute flyers in classes without having some discussion about the material, and I was concerned about how that would make some of our students feel,” Miss Wheeler said.

Last week, Miss Wheeler and other educators met with the Marriage Works group to chart a compromise.

School officials said they would allow the art contest flyers to be distributed, but teachers wouldn’t encourage students to compete.

On Monday, copies of the Marriage Works flyers went out to art teachers in Cecil County’s six middle schools and five high schools.

A memorandum accompanying the material states, “We are not in a position to promote this program, but we are providing flyers for students who wish to participate on their own.”

Mr. Ricciuti said educators were too worried about making students feel bad.

“We’re not saying that those people who are not married or are divorced are in any way bad,” Mr. Ricciuti said. “We’re saying that healthy marriages are more likely to reduce social problems before they occur.”

The contest ends next month, with the winning designs to grace local billboards by February.

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