(RNS) — 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.”
David Fishback, Maryland’s advocacy co-chair for PFLAG — Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays — called the court’s decision a victory. This inclusive curriculum could make a difference in the lives of children struggling with depression, suicide and loneliness because of their sexual orientation and gender identity, he explained.
“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.”
Haroon Moghul, author of “How To Be a Muslim: An American Story,” said disputes like the one in Montgomery County are likely to happen elsewhere.
“What’s happening there is happening almost anywhere in the country where there is a substantial American Muslim community,” he said. “There are a lot of concerns about the ways in which gender and sexuality are presented in schools and public spaces and whether or not Muslim communities should weigh in, should remove themselves from such conversations, or work with allies on either side of the political divide.”
On May 23, over 100 imams and Muslim scholars signed a statement affirming that policies aiming to promote “LGBTQ-centric values among children … subverted the agency of Muslim parents to teach their children their religiously grounded sexual ethics.”
In response to this statement, many Muslim voices supporting the LGBTQ+ community were raised. For Afsheen A. Shamsi, VP of communication at Union Theological Seminary in New York, protecting LGBTQ+ rights could only benefit the Muslim community.
“Today it’s the LGBTQ community, tomorrow it will be the Muslim community … We have to be careful about who we ally with because the religious right does have a track record of discriminating against some of the community as well,” she said.
Author Wajahat Ali, co-host of the “Democracy-ish” podcast, worries that Muslim parents are being co-opted into what he called “a mean-spirited, divide and conquer movement” that uses LGBTQ+ Americans as “boogeymen” to scare parents, he said in an interview backstage at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in mid-August, where he was a speaker.
Earlier this summer, Ali wrote about the controversy in Montgomery County in an op-ed for The New York Times with the headline, “We Muslims Used to Be the Culture War Scapegoats. Why Are Some of Us Joining the L.G.B.T.Q. Pile-On?”
Over the past school year, some families have pulled their kids out of MCPS and turned to private schools. For now, Elkoshairi is dedicated to defending the parents’ rights to opt-out but doesn’t exclude this possibility. He also said before the decision was announced that he had considered homeschooling. “We have that option. Socio-economically, my wife and I can homeschool. We have homeschooled our kids in the past. We can send our kids to private Islamic school,” he said.
Bob Smietana contributed to this story.