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Campers' big tent

National | Ah, summer camp: bonfires, ghost stories, poison ivy-and religious controversy. Should an evangelical organization be allowed to promote its camps and clubs through the public schools? Should the same courtesy be extended to a Muslim group? Two recent cases test the limits of equal access and religious tolerance

Issue: "Public-school reform," July 26, 2003

For kids in the wealthy Maryland suburbs outside Washington, there's no excuse for being bored this summer. As early as February, they started leaving school with fliers for various summer diversions: Art camp. Adventure camp. Basketball camp. History camp. Not to mention the traditional, all-purpose summer camps run by groups like the YMCA.

But for students in Montgomery County Public Schools, there was no news on Camp Good News, the annual weeklong getaway sponsored by Child Evangelism Fellowship of Maryland. CEF might have promoted its camp with take-home fliers like everyone else, but school officials had already banned the organization from students' backpacks.

CEF filed suit, arguing that the ban amounted to religious discrimination. After all, Montgomery County students lug home literally hundreds of fliers each year from every sort of community organization imaginable. Ads from the Chamber of Commerce and the County Recreation Department would come as no surprise, but even religious organizations like the Jewish Community Center and the Unitarian Universalist Church received the official OK for distribution.

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So why not CEF? Its half-page fliers looked innocuous enough. "Your kids are invited to come to Good News Club," read the bold-faced headline at the top, followed by a brief description: "Bible adventures, missionary adventures, games, singing, and much more! Tell a friend!" Parents were instructed to sign a permission form, and an italicized disclaimer at the bottom of the page emphasized that "This is not a school sponsored activity."

School administrators claimed that while other religious groups were promoting community services-sports clinics and daycare, for instance-CEF's after-school clubs were designed specifically to proselytize. But CEF countered that its Good News Clubs were simply a Bible-based form of mentoring, and that school officials were engaging in viewpoint discrimination by promoting only secularized programs.

"The position of Montgomery County appears to be that they will distribute fliers for religious organizations only if the speech is secular enough," says Nathan Adams, chief litigation counsel at the Christian Legal Society, which is representing CEF. "The government is taking the position that if you're approaching mentoring from a specifically Christian worldview, they have the right to discriminate against you."

The Justice Department agrees that Montgomery County's position amounts to religious discrimination. Last month, the civil-rights division filed a brief on behalf of CEF, asking the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a Maryland judge's decision in favor of the school system. Oral arguments in the appeal are slated for September, but even an expedited decision may not end the controversy. Other federal courts have split over the issue of religious fliers in public schools, so the case may eventually end up before the Supreme Court.

A win by CEF could have far-reaching-and largely unanticipated-consequences. By the end of next school year, for instance, public-school students in Iowa might even be carrying home fliers for a Muslim summer camp.

In early July, the Army Corps of Engineers approved plans for the nation's first Muslim youth camp on 106 acres of federal land in eastern Iowa. The Corps already leases land for summer camps to about 120 religious organizations nationwide, but never before has a Muslim group applied for such a lease. Muslim leaders in Iowa said they were merely asking for equal access to government land on the same basis as any other religious group.

Neighbors opposed the camp on environmental grounds, but the religious subtext was undeniable. Especially after 9/11, some hinted that the camp could become a training ground for terrorists in the heartland. Letters of protest poured into the Army Corps of Engineers, which deliberated for nearly four years before agreeing to the site plan.

Organizers insist Camp Horizon, as it's tentatively called, will be a secular place that merely caters to Muslim youths. Even the group's name, Muslim Youth Camps of America (MYCA), is designed to echo the broadly religious and nonthreatening acronym of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). Everyone will be welcome at the camp, they say, but young Muslims will find the atmosphere especially affirming.

Christians who have lobbied long and hard for equal access to public schools and other government facilities will likely find it difficult to oppose the Muslim camp with any sort of logical consistency. But Mr. Adams, the lawyer for Child Evangelism Fellowship, says Christians don't need to fear competition in the marketplace of ideas.

"I think Christians have a very compelling argument that all the gospel needs is equal access."

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