NEWS- No flier zone: Time cited in new 'backpack mail' ban

Albemarle School Superintendent Pam Moran says she was slammed with over 1,000 email messages in-box.

This fall, the load of papers coming home with Albemarle County kids in backpack mail will be lighter: no Boy Scouts recruitments, no YMCA sign-ups, no mention of vacation Bible school. And no fliers touting atheist camp. 

In the end, distributing religious and nonreligious materials through the schools was miring teachers, principals, administrators, and the Albemarle School Board in controversy. And a majority of School Board members wants to eliminate any fliers that aren't school- or government-related at its June 28 meeting.

"We want to get back some of the instructional time that's been lost," says School Board Chair Sue Friedman.

The brouhaha stems from a 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruling– Child Evangelism Fellowship v. Montgomery County Schools– that says schools that allow nonprofits like Little League and Boy Scouts to send home fliers can't discriminate against religious nonprofits that want to send home Good News Club fliers.

About a year ago, Mat Staver with the conservative Christian Liberty Counsel brought that ruling to Albemarle's attention when a local administrator refused to allow a student to distribute a vacation Bible school flier. The county began allowing religious activity fliers but promised to revisit the issue in a year. And over the past school year, a Pagan flier in December and one for the atheist-oriented Camp Quest this spring sparked more controversy. 

Superintendent Pam Moran told the School Board her email inbox shut down when a national organization– Vision America headquartered in Lufkin, Texas– got wind of the "beyond belief" Camp Quest fliers and flooded her with messages protesting school-abetted "atheistic indoctrination." Technicians had to work over the weekend to get her email back up and running.

Friedman denies the Camp Quest flier spurred the board to ban all fliers.

"For me, it wasn't about the content," Friedman explains. "At the end of the day, we had to make sure our highly qualified teachers were doing highly qualified instruction."

That's what the teachers wanted all along. "Last year, 16 out of 16 elementary principals recommended we not do this," admits Friedman. "We did not listen."

The School Board looked at the fliers as a community service, and the idea of a child in the rural area who wouldn't otherwise know about, say, soccer leagues, was "persuasive," says Friedman.

Two School Board members– Brian Wheeler and Jon Stokes– argued for continuing to let private fliers go home in backpacks. "I think it's an important service to families of Albemarle County schools that allowed us to be a community," says Stokes.

Stokes says that fewer fliers went home this past school year than in 2005-2006, and he disputes the notion that distributing fliers takes up too much instructional time

"I asked my son how he got his," says Stokes. "The teacher puts them on the table and says 'Take one.'" And teachers still have to hand out school and government fliers, which cuts into instructional time.

Stokes sees the matter as a freedom of speech issue and a "teachable moment." But even he concedes the fliers have taken up School Board time. "That's not the reason for being on the School Board," he says. "I'd rather deal with educational issues."

Secular humanist Mary Ellen Sikes has mixed feelings. A Camp Quest volunteer, she prepared the notice to go out through the schools.

"It was extremely disruptive," she acknowledges. "But it seemed more about the burden on the School Board."

She worries that minority viewpoints, such as the notion that human decency can be learned from places other than a 2,000-year-old story collection, will be lost in the controversy over the flier policy. 

"I feel sad because it was changed to accommodate prejudice rather than by formulating a policy based on what they feel are the needs of students to get information about community events," says Sikes, who attended the June 14 School Board meeting, where there was a "heated" discussion. 

After Vision America, a conservative Christian organization, urged its followers to "protest atheist indoctrination in schools" with this email, Albemarle changed its policy and now allows only school or government fliers to go home with students– much to the chagrin of nonprofits like the YMCA.

There's one issue Sikes feels the School Board sidestepped: reports on conservative websites of Albemarle teachers who did not distribute the Camp Quest fliers because they found them "offensive" and "outrageous."

School administrator Diane Behrens told the board she did not find any evidence of teachers not distributing the fliers, according to Sikes.

"We're very skeptical of, if you'll pardon the pun, 'a good faith' investigation," says Sikes. She reports board member Diantha McKeel saying in January that she had spoken to teachers who have not sent home fliers that they're not comfortable with, so Sikes wonders why the central office was unable find any of those teachers. McKeel and Behrens did not return phone calls by press time.

 For organizations that have traditionally used backpack mail to spread word of their activities, the change in policy is particularly painful.

"Most YMCAs rely on getting their information out through schools because most of our programs are geared to kids," says the Y's new CEO, Bill Blewitt, who was unaware of the county's impending policy change until contacted by a reporter. "It certainly will be detrimental to us how we get information out."



Back in the mid-1990s, the Waynesboro, Pennsylvania school board allowed the Gideons to come into the elementary schools and distribute New Testaments to 5th graders. I had warned them not to allow it, but they ignored me.

So, with the aid of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, I prepared an eye-catching little pamphlet--geared to elementary kids--entitled, "God Is Just Pretend", and I demanded that I have equal opportunity to distribute it.

In the meantime some members of the right-wing school board were voted out, and the new school board knew that they were caught between a rock and a hard place. They knew that if I really wanted to distribute the pamphlet they would have to allow it. But they gave me the choice. So I told them that I would rather they cut off ALL non-curricular-related handouts, and instead allow an open public forum annually at the Back To School nights in September. Local organizations whined and whined, but that September saw atheists next to Seventh Day Adventists next to Bible Thumpers next to the YMCA next to the (non-religiously-discriminatory) Girl Scouts next to the bigoted Boy Scouts. We all got along, except for a couple of loving Christians who harassed us and one who trashed our table right before our eyes.

Nothing fails like prayer, and nothing stops (and infuriates) know-it-all religionists in their tracks faster than atheists demanding and exercising their equal rights.

Why dont you people understand that freedom of religion also means freedom from religion? I also dont know where you got this preposterous notion that the United States was founded on Christianity.

It seems everyone runs out of time when it comes to heeding the rights of the non-religious. They had time to distribute Christian prostylization flyers. They had no problem with flyers for the Boy Scouts organization which explicitly excludes atheists in their applications. But we've run out of time for the atheists to get their fair share. If the atheists get to play then it time to stop the game.

I remember seeing a photograph of a pool owner (hotel pool?) in the segregation era who is dumping chemicals in the pool to make it unswimmable right after he was told that he had to allow blacks in. That was the last straw and he decided to keep everyone out. History does not look back fondly on his actions.

I'm lucky in that I can hide my atheism where blacks could not hide their skin color. But I continue to be treated as a nasty outsider whose rights often do not exist without a court order.

I'm bummed that we'll no longer get fliers about local community opportunities like Little League or SOCA or theater day camps, etc. Those were handy fliers--I would NEVER have found out about most of those opportunities if the flier hadn't come home in my kid's backpack. It's a shame because it helps build the community to have kids participating in activities together outside of school. If Staver had kept his religious fliers at home (the atheists didn't get active until Staver made a big fuss), we'd probably still be getting the non-religious kid activity fliers. Thanks a lot, Mr. Staver

Another case of "be careful what you wish for." People wanted to distribute religious material to kids, which caused all sorts of problems when it actually happened. People are so completely blind to their own biases that it takes something like this to bring it to light. Unfortunately, this will likely get blamed on the atheists for not just being good Christians like everyone else.

I personally thing those who were mentally deficient enough to complain about a simple piece of paper, really need to grow up. If it offends them..throw it away. that simple. And as far as the gideons being able ot come in..I'm personally a wiccan..but I saw where it did good by teaching them a path..yes, alot of christians are hypocrites to their own word, but the central message of loving thy neighbor..hits the nail right on the head. and many of you who bash christianity..and other religions need to look at what you're saying. You speak of how "enlightened" or how "right" you're doing exactly as those Christians. And personally..if i had alot of closeminded individuals message my email and complain..I'd get mad and stop it altogether too.

The idea of a "Christian Nation" scares the living shite out of me. True believers are terrible allies and/or neighbors. They either try to/succeed in converting you or they eliminate you. It's as simple as that. All their talk of being "discriminated against" because someone has the courage to tell them that this isn't a theocracy (yet) is preposterous. These people are pandered to every tow/four years and yet still believe that they are marginalized . . . they also believe in the so-called "liberal media". Hell, they probably believe in the Tooth Fairy as well.

Shut up. Schools are not community centers. They are schools. Schools are not for advertising. They are for educating. Schools are not political centers. They are not centers of religious debate. Backpacks are not mail bags. Children are not couriers. Reading, Writing, Math, Science, History. Not religion, not anti-religion, not sports, not your club, not your rights. Reading, Writing, Math...

Absolutely mystifiying..I pound my head against the wall, trying to understand the very little world certain nominal "Christians" live in..a world where, if they don't have 100% carte blanche control over what is said by all others, and where, and when, and to whom, THEIR "religious freedom" is being denied! If anyone else dares to express an opinion in the public forum not to their liking, it's time to sit on the floor, pound their little feet and have a tantrum! God's work, to be sure. Heaven forbid they have to make room in their world for thoughts and actions not consistent with their ideology. Well, grow up! In this country, for a while yet, we all still have the right to speak and believe as we choose. The bottom line here is that such faux Christians are so painfully weak in their belief, and so completely lacking any measure of a positive or regenerative spirit, that they are terrified the phony shell they instead call their "faith" will crack and shatter, if even mildly challenged. With a creed like that, no small wonder they have to browbeat and harrass others to get them into "the fold"! If they really believed they had a lock on The Truth, nothing would truly threaten them. Hey hypocrites..spend your time looking into yourselves, not badgering others!