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Montgomery County schools: Anti-gay leaflet renews flier wars

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Gay-rights groups blanketed Montgomery County high schools with fliers Wednesday morning to counter what many consider an anti-gay leaflet that is also being sent home with students at some high schools this week.

The dueling fliers renew a debate that has played out in backpacks intermittently over the past several years, most recently in February.

On one side is the group Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays, also known as PFOX, which contends that homosexuality is not a fixed trait and that people can change their sexual orientation.

On the other side are groups including Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, known as PFLAG. They say that being gay is not a choice and that “conversion” therapies can be harmful.

Montgomery school officials say the flier wars could soon be over. A policy committee for the Board of Education is recommending a ban on flier distribution by outside groups in middle and high schools starting the next academic year.

“I find it concerning that nonprofits have come to believe that it’s our responsibility to get their message out,” said board member Patricia O’Neill (Bethesda-Potomac), the committee chairwoman.

The committee will give its recommendation to the board April 30, with a final vote likely in June. Exceptions to the ban would be made for fliers from the school system, PTA or government agencies, O’Neill said. Community groups would still be allowed to send fliers home with elementary school students.

The current policy permits any nonprofit organization to send home a leaflet at certain times during the year. The right was upheld in federal court in 2006, after the Child Evangelism Fellowship of Maryland sued the school system for refusing to send home fliers promoting its after-school Bible study programs. To remain viewpoint neutral, the school system must permit all groups or none to send messages home. Most notices advertise sports leagues, service projects or other extracurricular opportunities.

O’Neill said the committee found that far more community organizations seek to reach out to younger students and their families. Last academic year, 232 organizations delivered fliers through elementary schools, 84 sent them through middle schools and 14 through high schools. O’Neill said that teenagers often just throw the fliers away and that there are more efficient ways to communicate in a digital age.

Peter Sprigg of the PFOX board of directors said the fliers are reaching teenagers who are learning a different lesson via the school curriculum, that sexual orientation is innate. He said the school system is trying to censor the group.

“I don’t think censorship is the message that we should be teaching students in a free society,” he said.

The group delivered fliers to seven high schools this week, he said: Blake, Gaithersburg, Northwood, Wheaton, Watkins Mill, Quince Orchard and Walt Whitman.

The policy committee’s review was catalyzed by complaints from students and educators after a previous round of fliers was sent home with students in February. Superintendent Joshua P. Starr called the group’s message “reprehensible and deplorable.”

Critics say the PFOX message fuels social stigmas against homosexuality, which can lead to depression and low self-esteem. Increasingly, high schools are hosting gay-straight alliances and plays or assemblies that espouse acceptance of gays.

In response to PFOX, the opposing message was developed by PFLAG, along with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Equality Maryland Foundation.

The flier, dropped off at all 25 county high schools Wednesday morning, says that sexual orientation is not a choice and that mainstream medical and mental health professional organizations agree that “there is nothing wrong with you” if you are gay.

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