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Local Scouting Suffers in Constitutional Fight

Boy Scouts can no longer use school "backpack mail" to reach students.

The 20 or so Boy Scouts and prospective Scouts who met for a barbecue and open house in the field behind Seven Locks Baptist Church April 30 spent the afternoon building fires and climbing on a monkey bridge the Scouts had built. They probably didn’t spend much time pondering the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

But a more than two-year Constitutional law dispute in Montgomery County was one of the main reasons they were there.

“Across the county, we aren’t reaching the kids. Enrolled membership — we’re losing more than 10 percent per year,” said Geoffery Wolfe, Scoutmaster for Troop 1434 in Potomac, which hosted the event. “Scouts is heading down and an important reason is because … we’re not letting the kids know where the activities are.”

Wolfe has had to ramp up outreach activities like the April 30 open house after Montgomery County Public Schools stopped allowing the Boy Scouts to send home informational fliers with its students.

IN JULY, 2004, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond ruled that Montgomery County Public Schools could not prevent a religious after-school club — an arm of the Child Evangelism Fellowship — from distributing fliers to students through the “backpack mail” system, in which students bring home school announcements and other information.

MCPS had argued that having students carry home the fliers would constitute government endorsement of a religious activity, violating the Establishment Clause.

Following the ruling, MCPS changed its backpack mail policy, making non-profit youth sports leagues the only extracurricular groups allowed to send home fliers with the school and government announcements.

The Scouts can still display information at school events, with prior approval from MCPS.

The revised policy, adopted on July 29, 2004, has kept the Child Evangelism Fellowship out and the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt upheld the policy change, but the religious group has appealed the new policy ruling to the 4th Circuit.

WHAT STARTED as a legal dispute has become an administrative boon for MCPS.

The school system’s June 2004 Accountability News and Notes newsletter stated that following a record 488 public comments on the policy change, “Many schools report that implementation of the policy has been straightforward and the push back minimal, with few notable exceptions.”

“The schools were being inundated with requests to send fliers home and the School Board wanted to relieve the schools of that huge burden,” said Brian Edwards, an MCPS spokesman.

That’s little comfort to groups like the Boy Scouts.

“Boy Scouts relies heavily on the ability to distribute flyers and recruitment information to students to take home to their parents. Very often, flyers distributed at schools are the only way that interested families become aware of our programs,” wrote Matthew J. Budz, assistant director of Field Services for the Boy Scouts’ National Capital Area Council in an Aug. 2, 2004 letter to schools Superintendent Jerry Weast. “Being denied the ability to reach those students and parents will result in thousands of youth being deprived of the opportunity to participate in Scouting.”

THE BOY SCOUTS may be losing ground to other activities.

Boy Scouting begins in sixth grade and many Boy Scouts are traditionally graduates of Cub Scouting, which ranges through fifth.

But many Cub Scouts are deciding not to make the jump to the next level, Wolfe said.

Norwood School parent Gil Lovett said his son Lee, a fifth-grader, will likely be one such child.

“When you get to this point it’s time consuming and you kind of have to pick and choose what you want to do and [Lee is] into a lot of different sports which he really enjoys,” Lovett said while Lee participated in the open house at Seven Locks Baptist. “Once you hit fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade you get to that age where you’ve got to start selecting.”

“I have a theory that youth sports is a big competitor and that youth sports is starting at an earlier and earlier age,” said Hunter Prillaman, a Scout Leader for Troop 1434, pointing out several children at the open house that were wearing MSI soccer uniforms.

As Prillaman spoke about working harder to reach prospective Scouts, a parent complimented him on the troop’s Web site.

“That’s one way,” Prillaman said. “Maybe we should get on My Space.”