The Fairfax County public school system has reached an agreement with a Christian student and his family and will allow religious groups to distribute fliers to students.
Previously, the district allowed only nonprofit, nonreligious organizations to post meeting notices on school bulletin boards or hand out fliers to students. But the School Board voted unanimously last week to change that policy.
School officials said they had little choice after studying several recent federal court decisions that said school districts must give the same treatment to all nonprofit groups, religious or secular.
The board's action is having a ripple effect in surrounding districts. School officials in Prince William County, Arlington County and Alexandria said they are likely to reexamine their policies in light of Fairfax's decision. Wayde B. Byard, spokesman for Loudoun County schools, said Christian clubs are already free to advertise there.
Al Black protested to the Fairfax School Board after administrators stopped his son, Eric, then a fifth-grader at Anthony T. Lane Elementary School, from distributing brochures last March about a Christian club that met at the school.
The Child Evangelism Fellowship, which has chapters at elementary schools nationwide, also was not allowed to set up a booth at Back-to-School Night, according to the family's attorney, Nathan A. Adams. But it has been allowed to do so in this school year, he said.
Adams, who works for the Christian Legal Society based in Annandale, contended that because the school system allowed nonprofit groups such as the Boys Scouts of America to distribute materials in this way, faith-based organizations had to be accorded the same right.
A similar case, brought by another Christian club, is pending before the Montgomery County School Board, he said.
The issue highlights schools' struggles to maintain a pluralistic environment and encourage students to pursue their convictions, while shielding children from unwanted solicitations from outside organizations and being careful to maintain a separation of church and state.
Religious groups are not allowed to distribute fliers at Prince William schools, for instance, because of church-state concerns, said Pamela Gauch, associate superintendent for instruction. She said the district might have to reexamine its policy.
"I get requests all the time to distribute information," Gauch said. "It's easy when it's a business. We just say, 'No, we don't do that kind of thing.' But the religious piece, it's a fine line. . . . It's not an easy issue."
Adams said separation of church and state is not the central principle at stake in the matter.
"Equal access for all groups, that's what this case is about," he said. "This decision is a victory for all parents."
The school district had been "censoring" which brochures students and their families see, he said. "It should be up to the parents to decide what their kids get involved in."
Adams said that although the family did not file a lawsuit, "there was always the understanding that should the school district not choose to modify its existing policy, [a lawsuit] was a possibility."
The issue came to light when Eric, 12, handed Child Evangelism Fellowship fliers, which included a description of the meetings and permission slip, to classmates as they boarded the bus after school.
His father said that the family had cleared the activity with school officials but that Eric was stopped by school administrators.
Black said he was satisfied with the board's decision.
"It did a great job for equality, not just for religious clubs but for all nonprofits," he said. "It really opened up the schools for equal and fair access for all clubs. It's really what America is all about."
School Board member Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill), who until Jan. 9 was board chairman, said that although he voted for the measure, he remains concerned that advertising requests from religious groups will distract and overload the district's busy administrators.
"We are not in the religion business," said Gibson. "We are not in the Boy Scout business. We are not in the cookie sale business. To the extent that we can help groups that have a similar mission as ours in terms of building young adults, we try our best to work with them."