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Maryland Parents Not Allowed to Opt Kids Out of LGBTQ Assignments

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Photo: Kohji Asakawa, via Pixabay

A federal appeals court ruled that Montgomery County Public Schools doesn’t have to offer an “opt-out” for religious parents who object to lessons incorporating books with LGBTQ characters.

Three sets of parents — Muslim, Christian, and Jewish — sued the school district, claiming that books with LGBTQ characters “contradict their sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage, human sexuality, and gender.”

They also argued that not providing an “opt-out” for their children violated their First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. Forcing their children to attend lessons incorporating the books would amount to “indoctrination” and “coerce their children to violate or change their religious beliefs.”

A lower federal court ruled in August 2023 that the parents failed to meet the threshold required to prove that the lack of an opt-out policy violated their religious beliefs or would result in the evils alleged by the parents. The decision was subsequently appealed.

On May 15, a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit upheld the decision in a 2-1 ruling.

“There’s no evidence at present that the [MCPS] board’s decision not to permit opt-outs compels the parents or their children to change their religious beliefs or conduct, either at school or elsewhere,” U.S. Circuit Judge Steven Agee, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote on behalf of the majority.

“Supreme Court precedent requires some sort of direct or indirect pressure to abandon religious beliefs or affirmatively act contrary to those beliefs,” Agee continued. “And simply hearing about other views does not necessarily exert pressure to believe or act differently than one’s religious faith requires.”

The parents were represented by the right-wing Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, an anti-LGBTQ legal advocacy group that has vowed to appeal the decision.

“The court just told thousands of Maryland parents they have no say in what their children are taught in public schools,” said Eric Baxter, senior counsel for the Becket Fund. “That runs contrary to the First Amendment, Maryland law, the School Board’s own policies, and basic human decency. Parents should have the right to receive notice and opt their children out of classroom material that violates their faith.”

The district has claimed that the inclusion of LGBTQ-inclusive books as part of the English-Language Arts curriculum are meant to encourage students to “empathize, connect, and collaborate with diverse peers and encourage respect for all.”

In explaining its policy, the district noted, “a more tolerant, inclusive, and accepting school environment helps children learn to recognize and resist stereotypes. We teach children to stand up for others, resist bullying, and work together.”

Montgomery County Public Schools initially instituted a policy allowing parents of students in any grade to opt out of lessons involving books with LGBTQ characters in October 2022.

But school officials say the number of opt-out requests grew too difficult to manage, student rates of absenteeism soared, and the controversy over LGBTQ content created a stigmatizing environment for LGBTQ students and those being raised by LGBTQ parents. 

In March 2023, the school board ended the policy. That led to protests outside of school board meetings as conservative parents demanded that the opt-out policy be revived.

While the parents pointed to a state law requiring Maryland school districts to establish opt-out policies, MCPS argued that school administrators can deny opt-out requests if they become too burdensome or create “significant disruptions to the classroom environment.”

The court’s decision was celebrated by the national American Civil Liberties Union and its Maryland chapter.

“We’re talking about books like Pride Puppy, which is light-hearted and affirming,” Deborah Jeon, the legal director for the ACLU of Maryland. “During a time of intensifying calls to ban books and limit access to information about LGBTQ+ people and identities, this ruling in support of inclusion in education matters.”


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