- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Montgomery County public school officials said yesterday they would review their policy to control the distribution of leaflets, fliers and other printed materials to students.

The announcement came one day after a federal appeals court declared the current policy unconstitutional. The decision was the latest in a series of rulings in the case involving the Child Evangelism Fellowship of Maryland. The Christian group has been trying for five years to gain approval for distribution of fliers inviting students to participate in its Good News Clubs and its Bible-centered activities.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond found that the school system’s two-year-old policy gave officials too much discretion in determining what could and could not be distributed. The panel of three appellate court judges overruled the policy unanimously.

“Permitting [Montgomery County Public Schools] unbridled discretion to deny access to the oft-used forum — for any reason at all, including antipathy to a particular viewpoint — does not ensure the requisite viewpoint neutrality,” Judge Diane Motz wrote in the opinion.

Charles Haughey, president of Montgomery County’s board of education, said he and board members “must now determine an approach that comports with the court’s opinion.”

The Alliance Defense Fund financed the court fight on behalf of the fellowship, which was represented in court by attorneys from the Christian Legal Society.

“When a school district opens up an avenue for public expression, it cannot exclude certain people or organizations merely because their viewpoint is religious,” said Timothy J. Tracey, an attorney for the legal group.

An earlier court decision found that using public school teachers to distribute fliers for children to take home would not violate separation of church and state mandates, as school system officials feared.

But a federal judge then ruled that a revised policy created following the initial decision could be used to allow distribution of literature from some community groups while barring materials from others. The latest ruling overturns that decision.

County officials contend that the policy was designed to prevent distribution of materials not related to the schools from intruding on classroom instruction time.

“I continue to believe that the volume of material, unrelated to school, delivered home through the time and energy of our staff and students, must be limited,” said county public schools Superintendent Jerry Weast.

While the court found no evidence that a group had been denied flier-distribution privileges based upon viewpoint, the judges expressed concern that the flier policy barred sufficient protections against potential discrimination.

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