News (USA)

Court rules religious parents can’t opt their kids out of LGBTQ+-inclusive school lessons

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A federal appeals court has ruled that religious parents in Maryland can’t opt their kids out of classroom lessons involving LGBTQ+-inclusive books.

Three sets of parents – who are Muslim, Jewish, and Christian – sued the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), arguing that the books “contradict their sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage, human sexuality, and gender.” The parents said that forcing their kids to attend lessons on the books violated their First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion, The Hill wrote.

The three-member appeals court panel upheld a lower court decision, saying that the parents failed to demonstrate how the books would be used in the lessons.

“At this early stage, however, given the Parents’ broad claims, the very high burden required to obtain a preliminary injunction, and the scant record before us, we are constrained to affirm the district court’s order denying a preliminary injunction,” wrote Judge G. Steven Agee of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He was appointed by former President George W. Bush.

The parents were represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, an anti-LGBTQ+ legal advocacy organization that has promised to appeal the court’s 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, vice president and 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.”

In March 2023, the school district ended a policy allowing parents to opt their students out of the district’s pre-K–12 language arts curriculum. The policy initially allowed parents to opt out when lessons involved books featuring LGBTQ+ characters.

According to a district statement on its “Inclusive and Welcoming Learning” initiative, the LGBTQ+-inclusive materials are part of the district’s efforts to cultivate “an inclusive and welcoming learning environment” and “to create opportunities where all students see themselves and their families in curriculum materials.”

The decision to end the opt-out policy, which the district instituted in October 2022, led protesters to begin protesting at the school district’s board meetings.

Rachel Hull, the parent of a nonbinary child, said of the anti-LGBTQ+ protesters at the school board meetings, “Much of the opt-out arguments are couched as parental rights and religious freedom. But what it boils down to is that the LGBT+ community is being told that their very existence is abnormal. And that their identity should be a source of shame.”

The parents’ resulting lawsuit pointed to a Maryland law requiring school systems to establish opt-out policies for students. However, in its own court filing, MCPS said school administrators can deny opt-out requests if they become too burdensome.

“Individual schools could not accommodate the growing number of opt-out requests without causing significant disruptions to the classroom environment and undermining MCPS’s educational mission,” MCPS’s response read.

In August 2023, a lower U.S. District Court ruled that the parents failed to prove that the lack of an opt-out policy would result in the “indoctrination of their children” or “coerce their children to violate or change their religious beliefs.”

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