AS MISSION statements go, the Child Evangelism Fellowship's is a model of clarity. The purpose of the organization's after-school Good News Clubs, of which there are well over 4,000 nationwide, is "to evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and establish (disciple) them in the Word of God and in a local church for Christian living," according to its Web site. All children in a Good News Club are urged to pray, attend church and "trust Jesus as Savior." That's a suitable message coming from a religious organization. It is not appropriate coming from public elementary schools, whose role in society is to educate children, not summon them to worship. By insisting on their supposed right to have their fliers distributed to pupils in Montgomery County elementary schools -- by school staff and volunteers, no less -- the clubs would transform teachers into agents of evangelism, and convert schools into seedbeds of faith.
That is unconstitutional. We've said before that parents should be able to send their children to public schools without fear they will be proselytized. But a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond, disagreed. In a 2 to 1 decision on June 30 that overturned a federal district judge's ruling, the court said that Montgomery County schools could not refuse to distribute the Good News Club recruitment fliers while continuing to dispense fliers for other nonprofit groups engaged in the fine arts, drama, sports, music and dance. By doing so, said the court, the schools were guilty of viewpoint discrimination.
Montgomery's Board of Education last week sought to cope with this decision by adopting a new policy: From now on, the board decided in a 7 to 1 vote, virtually all nonprofit community groups -- not just the Good News Club but also the Boy Scouts and many others -- will be barred from distributing fliers in the schools. Exceptions to the new policy are to be made only for PTAs, government agencies, student groups, in-school day-care centers and the schools themselves. In addition, the schools will permit nonprofit sports leagues to distribute their fliers. Virtually all community groups, including Good News Clubs, will continue to have access to school facilities during off-hours for organizational meetings and the like, as mandated by a Supreme Court decision in 2001.
The board's new policy has triggered a torrent of e-mailed abuse, much of it from out of state. The Good News Clubs are threatening to sue the school board, as are the Boy Scouts. We hope the board of education sticks to its guns; if anything, the board should make its policy stricter, by eliminating the exception for sports leagues. By distributing recruitment literature from community groups, the schools implicitly stamp their imprimatur on outside groups about which they know little, while squandering the time of teachers and volunteers whose main contribution should be to academics. The Boy Scouts, the Bible clubs and other nonprofits can and do reach potential recruits without using schools as their mailrooms and 8-year-olds as their couriers.