The Montgomery County Board of Education voted Thursday night to ban religious clubs, the Boy Scouts and other community organizations from distributing fliers in student backpacks, a move those groups say will cripple their recruitment efforts.
The new policy, approved by a 7 to 1 vote, is the latest attempt by the school system to prevent the Good News Club, an after-school Bible group, from having its recruitment fliers placed in backpacks along with other informational material for students and their parents.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond, ruled last month that the Montgomery school system violated the Christian group's free speech rights three years ago when it refused to distribute the club's fliers to elementary school students, even though it had done so for more than 200 other groups.
School board members said they hope the new policy -- which will allow PTAs, government agencies, student groups, day-care centers, nonprofit sports leagues and the school system to continue disseminating fliers -- will pass legal muster. The school system plans to file papers with the appeals court Monday arguing that the new policy makes the court's prior decision moot, said Judith Bresler, the school board's general counsel.
"I find this to be the only way to deal with the decision of the court," said board Vice President Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase). "This is the only way to keep out proselytizing pieces of literature."
But attorneys for the Good News Club said the policy does not resolve the free speech issues.
"When a board adopts a policy with the purpose of keeping out religious speech, that is hostility that violates the First Amendment," said Kim Colby, senior counsel for the Christian Legal Society, which is representing the Bible club. "I don't think this new policy changes the unconstitutionality of what they've done."
A dozen Boy Scouts of America supporters protested the board's decision Thursday night, calling it discriminatory and a major blow to scouting in the area.
"We won't be able to sustain our membership with this new policy," said Stephen J. Robillard, an assistant scout master for Troop 496 in Poolesville. "It cuts off our primary means of communicating with parents."
Scouting leaders said Montgomery County is the first school system in the Washington area to ban the Boy Scouts from distributing take-home fliers to students. In Fairfax County, for example, the School Board's policy says fliers will be sent home as long they "relate to the schools' primary focus, the education of children."
The scouting group is considering legal action, said Matthew J. Budz of the Boy Scouts' National Capital Area Council.
The Montgomery school board received about 500 letters and e-mails about the new policy, more than officials say they have received on any other issue. About 200 complaints were from Boy Scouts supporters.
In response to some of the comments, O'Neill introduced a last-minute amendment to permit nonprofit sports leagues to distribute materials. She said the change was necessary to promote exercise and physical health.
But the Boy Scouts leaders said it was unfair to allows sports leagues' fliers and not theirs. "How can you promote one nonprofit over another?" Budz said.
Board members said allowing all nonprofits to disseminate fliers would become too burdensome for school staff who distribute them and for children who carry the literature home. They said groups such as the Boy Scouts can find new ways to recruit members, such as e-mail, phone calls and advertisements in local newspapers.
"I don't know how we got into being the Pony Express for all organizations," O'Neill said. "We could create a situation where our kids are pack mules."
Board member Walter Lange (Rockville-Potomac), who cast the dissenting vote, said the new policy will have a negative impact on the school system.
"One of our goals is to foster and encourage communication with the community," he said. "I think we should partner with arts groups and the Boy Scouts and the Camp Fire girls -- not shut them out."
Other board members said opponents of the new policy were overreacting. "I think we will see that it's not as draconian as people fear now," board President Sharon W. Cox (At-Large) said.