Federal judge denies religious parents' request to opt kids out of LGBTQ+ lessons

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On Thursday, a U.S. District Court dismissed a request by parents whose children attend public schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, to let their kids opt out of classes where books on LGBTQ+ issues are read and discussed.

"The plaintiffs have not shown that MCPS's use of the storybooks crosses the line from permissible influence to potentially impermissible indoctrination," read the judge's opinion and order document.

Last fall, MCPS's announcement of a new inclusive English/Language arts curriculum for its pre-K to 5th-grade students caused a public uproar, drawing criticism from school principals and parents.

On May 24, three Muslim and Christian families sued the district, claiming that teaching the new material without giving parents the chance to excuse their children infringed on their religious freedom.

MCPS allows parents to opt their kids out of specific units of its Family Life and Human Sexuality classes, but that rule doesn't apply to the English/Language Arts curriculum books.

Thursday's decision is a preliminary injunction in response to parents' request to be able to opt out before students return to class Aug. 28. The judge still needs to hear the full case before making a final decision.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the legal group representing the parents, said it would appeal the decision.

"The School Board should let kids be kids and let parents decide how and when to best educate their own children consistent with their religious beliefs," wrote Becket Vice President Eric Baxter in a statement.

After the judge ruled, MCPS issued a statement reaffirming its commitment "to cultivating an inclusive and welcoming learning environment and creating opportunities where all students see themselves and their families in curriculum materials."

"Children should not feel that there is something wrong with them," said Fishback, whose kids were MCPS students in the late 1990s and came out as gay in their teenage years.

The books introduced in the 2022-23 curriculum were meant to honor "the perspectives and experiences of students, staff, and community members who are part of the LGBTQ+ community," according to MCPS.

One of the books included in the Pre-K curriculum, "Pride Puppy!," tells the story of a family celebrating Pride Day while teaching students terms related to the LGBTQ+ community. The 2020 book "My Rainbow" tells the story of a mom creating a rainbow-colored wig for her transgender daughter.

Soon after the curriculum was made public in October 2022, school principals in the county shared their concerns about the age-appropriateness of the books in a letter addressed to the school district's officials. Families who felt the books ran counter to their religious beliefs also requested the option to remove their children from classes using the material. Some school principals extended families at their schools the opportunity to opt out of the instruction. But when MCPS ended this option in March, tensions between the school board and the families rose.

By early April 2023, Wael Elkoshairi had created Family Rights for Religious Freedom, an Islamic-centric organization advocating for restoring parents' right to opt out, with 11 other families.

"We don't want an untrained teacher, who knows nothing about our theology, or Jewish jurisprudence, Christian jurisprudence, or Islamic jurisprudence, with a chart sent by MCPS, to manage such sensitive issues," said Elkoshairi, whose two children are enrolled in county elementary and high schools.

Other parent associations were established and have regularly organized protests outside the school board and Maryland's district court. Conservative groups such as the Moms for Liberty joined some protests. Family Rights for Religious Freedom has received numerous requests for endorsements from Republican and Democratic candidates but reiterated that it was an apolitical association. "We don't do that. That's not what we're invested in," said Elkoshairi.

In a statement released Thursday evening, Zainab Chaudry, Maryland chapter director of Council on American-Islamic Relations, the country's largest Muslim civil rights organization, said, "Until the opt-out option is restored, we plan to pursue every available legal means on behalf of families to protect their rights."

© Religion News Service