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Liberty Counsel demands Pasco schools distribute fliers for religious clubs

NEW PORT RICHEY — A Christian group wants to attract more kids to the after-school Bible study programs it runs at several Pasco elementary schools.

But when the Child Evangelism Fellowship Suncoast Chapter asked to send fliers home with every student, school officials balked.

So the fellowship group has called in the Liberty Counsel, a nationally recognized legal organization specializing in religious rights, to push for access.

"Sometimes people see religious groups and they try to treat them differently," said Darrin Rogers, executive director of the local Child Evangelism Fellowship chapter. "If some groups can and other groups can't (send home fliers), that would be wrong."

In a letter to district officials, Liberty Counsel lawyer David M. Corry demanded "immediate approval" of the fellowship's fliers in the methods regularly available to nonreligious groups. He also demanded changes to the "unconstitutional district policy" that he said banned wider distribution of the fliers.

"Equal access means equal treatment," Corry wrote. "Discrimination in any form between secular and religious organization messages is unconstitutional."

Except district officials say that's not the case.

"The only people we actually send home fliers for are other government entities," Pasco schools spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli said.

The district rejects similar appeals from such groups as the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Clubs, she said. Instead, schools provide community tables, where organizations may leave pamphlets, brochures and fliers for students and parents to pick up if they wish. Those tables generally are in school offices.

"We are very uniform in the application of that policy," Romagnoli said.

A representative of the Boys and Girls Club of West Pasco confirmed that practice.

Rogers acknowledged that schools have let his group place information in the office. But he'd like to be able to spread the word about the club, which has operated at Richey, Cypress, Connerton and Chasco elementary schools, to more people than those who stop to grab a flier.

"It kind of makes it hard if you can't let the kids know in school about the club," he said.

The issue echoes larger discussions taking place in the Florida Legislature, where some lawmakers have proposed allowing student groups to lead prayers at school activities. The Anti-Defamation League has argued that students should have individual religious rights in school, but cautioned that schools should not be in the practice of promoting religion.

The Good News Clubs have met at Pasco schools for a couple of years. The children gather after school to have a snack, hear Bible lessons, play games, sing and pray. Volunteers from local churches give the lessons, and organizers sign a lease and pay a fee to the Pasco School Board to use the classroom space.

School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso said he didn't believe the Liberty Counsel and the Child Evangelism Fellowship were factually accurate in claiming the district has discriminated against the group. He said the policy under challenge, relating to advertising and promotion, doesn't apply to this situation.

The policy, which refers to advertisement of goods, services and products, states that no ads in schools may promote any specific religion or religious, ethnic or racial group or political candidate.

Alfonso said he was working with the superintendent's office to finalize a response to the Liberty Counsel.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Liberty Counsel demands Pasco schools distribute fliers for religious clubs 04/07/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 7, 2011 8:16pm]
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