NEWS- Frequent fliers: Albemarle okays religious mail

A letter from the Jerry Falwell-linked Liberty Counsel has prompted the Albemarle County School Board to change its policy. The Board will now allow religious organizations to send home fliers with school children in backpack mail.

Liberty Counsel, which, according to its website, is "dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of human life and the traditional family," wrote the Albemarle County school system that its policy banning distribution of religious materials was unconstitutional.

 This summer, Hollymead Elementary twins Gabriel and Joshua Rakoski wanted to distribute fliers about their church's vacation bible school. When their teacher refused, their father, Ray Rakoski, contacted the school and was advised of the county's policy that prohibited "distribution of literature that is for partisan, sectarian, religious or political purposes." 

Rakoski sicced the Liberty Counsel on the county, and the new policy that opens up so-called "backpack mail" to religious nonprofits could be voted in by the School Board September 28.

"We're pleased the school changed its policy so quickly and correctly," says Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel founder and chairman. "The law is clear– when schools allow the distribution of secular material, they must accommodate religious material."

Staver refers to a recent 4th Circuit Court of Appeals decision upholding a Good News Club's right to distribute fliers in Montgomery County schools in Maryland. 

School have two choices, says Kent Willis, director of the ACLU of Virginia: prohibit any distribution of material by outside nonprofits or allow all materials to be distributed. 

"The real issue is viewpoint discrimination," he explains. For instance, schools can't allow YMCA basketball league to send home fliers but refuse one for Bible school or the gay-straight alliance.

One other caveat: "Schools have to be very careful students are not coerced and the school does not endorse a viewpoint," says Willis.

The Albemarle School Board has weighed whether to stop distribution of fliers altogether or to expand the policy to allow religious groups to distribute. 

At-large member Brian Wheeler favors keeping it open but requiring nonprofits to add disclaimers that the county does not endorse the organization or activity and that the flyers are not printed at taxpayer expense.

School Board Chairman Sue Friedman sees the open distribution as a community service. "A lot of us value being partners with families in terms of providing information," she says, particularly for the more rural schools. "On the other hand, we heard very clearly from principals and teachers that this will intrude on instructional time," says Friedman. She suggests that the county may limit distribution to once a month or grading period or semester.

And the open policy isn't etched in stone. "I would suspect we'll revisit it at the end of the school year," says Friedman.

Michele Kupfer, who has three children in Albemarle schools, is not pleased with the county's decision. "I don't think public school is the place to distribute religious things," she says. "I have no problem with students learning about different religions, but they shouldn't be recruiting in schools."

She adds, "I love the separation between church and state, especially with vulnerable young kids."

Albemarle's director of support services Diane Behrens is the person who approves fliers for distribution in county schools, and she's already had a complaint. "We had one parent who did not appreciate getting information for a pool party that was actually religious in nature," she says.

Out of 97 requests last year, Behrens denied five because they were religious.

She'll continue to review requests and set up the policy for how outside groups distribute materials, such as requiring them in bundles of 25 to make it easier on the teachers who send them home.

"Most of the school divisions I surveyed do not allow distribution," she says.

"We want to make it not onerous on our employees," says Wheeler, who notes that school staffs are not required to distribute commercial or political material. The latter may still be a problem. 

"I think it would be unconstitutional to prohibit political material," says Liberty Counsel's Staver, who isn't worried about schools being inundated. "They're not required to accept everything," he says, citing exemptions for libelous, obscene or pornographic material. Nor does he object if Muslim or Jewish groups want to distribute information about their events in schools. "The First Amendment is not just for the Liberty Counsel," he says. "You can't just pick and choose."

Even nonprofits that often oppose Liberty Counsel– for example, Planned Parenthood– should be allowed to use the schools to get their  messages out, Staver says. "You can't transport kids to an abortion clinic," he stipulates, "but you can send material home and let parents make a decision."

And if the Aryan Nation is having a family event? "You can always think of a hard example," concedes Staver. "I haven't seen the Aryan Nation come up with outreach to kids with picnics or lessons."