The latest in a series of court challenges pitting religious freedoms against school curricula was decided Aug. 25 in Maryland. A federal judge has denied a request to let Montgomery County, Maryland parents pull their children from the classroom when books with LGBTQ+ characters are read aloud. Without the injunction, all students who returned to class on Aug. 28 must participate in lessons in the curriculum.
A group of Montgomery County Public School parents submitted the request on Aug. 9. Had it been granted, a preliminary injunction would have allowed parents to immediately opt their kids out of engaging with certain books in English classes if those books go against the parents’ religious values. Montgomery County is the largest school district in the state.
Several Muslim and Christian families had sued Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) in May, claiming the use of LGBTQ+ storybooks forces religious parents to choose between their religious beliefs or take their children out of the public school system. The parents had asked that their children be allowed to opt out of such readings before the school year began Aug. 28. The request was to do so on a temporary basis as litigation requesting a permanent exemption proceeds through the courts.
Local Maryland media reported, “Thousands of parents were waiting on the ruling in the culture war clash.”
In a 60-page ruling delivered Aug. 25 in advance of classes resuming, Judge Deborah Boardman of the U.S. District Court for Maryland denied the request. Boardman, a Biden appointee, concluded that the parents’ “asserted due process right to direct their children’s upbringing by opting out of a public-school curriculum that conflicts with their religious views is not a fundamental right.”
Boardman said that the parents had failed to show that the current policy that disallows such opting out would “result in the indoctrination of their children or otherwise coerce their children to violate or change their religious beliefs.”
Boardman wrote, “With or without an opt-out right, the parents remain free to pursue their sacred obligations to instruct their children in their faiths.”
She continued, “Even if their children’s exposure to religiously offensive ideas makes the parents’ efforts less likely to succeed, that does not amount to a government-imposed burden on their religious exercise.”
Boardman also said, “Because the plaintiffs have not established any of their claims is likely to succeed on the merits, the Court need not address the remaining preliminary injunction factors. Nonetheless, because a constitutional violation is not likely or imminent, it follows that the plaintiffs are not likely to suffer imminent irreparable harm, and the balance of the equities and the public interest favor denying an injunction to avoid undermining the School Board’s legitimate interests in the no-opt-out policy.”
The controversy began in 2022 when MCPS introduced more than 22 new books featuring LGBTQ+ characters into classrooms as part of a diversity initiative. In the 2022-2023 school year, the books being challenged were not mandatory. In the 2023-2024 school year, these books now are part of an English language arts curriculum list of recommended readings. The LGBTQ+ books added to the district’s curriculum are included in pre-K through eighth-grade classrooms and feature references to Pride parades, gender transition and pronoun preference.
Some of the books at the center of the discourse include “Pride Puppy,” geared toward preschoolers and “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding,” geared toward students in kindergarten through 5th grade. Also on the list are “Love, Violet,” a story about a girl who develops a crush on her classmate and contemplates how to create a card for her for Valentine’s Day, and “My Rainbow,” the tale of a mom who makes a colorful wig for her transgender daughter.
Officials in the school district assert that all the books are “age and developmentally appropriate.” Parents were disallowed any opt-out options back in March.
Lee Blinder, the co-chair for the Coalition for Inclusive Schools and Communities, told NBC affiliate channel 4 that, “Our young folks now are growing up with a lot more representation in the media and out there in the world.”
Co-chair Philip Alexander Downie added, “Queer people exist in every facet of every part of our society, in every religion.”
Eric Baxter, VP and Senior Counsel at Becket, the law firm representing the families, said the ruling “flies in the face of parental freedom, childhood innocence, and basic human decency.”
Baxter said his firm wanted “to represent the right of parents to protect their religious training and upbringings of their children.”
Baxter claimed the decision was “wrong on multiple levels,” since courts have recognized that “indirect pressure on parents or students to abandon their religious beliefs is sufficient to trigger the First Amendment.”
Baxter also asserted that the school board has “admitted it is trying to disrupt students understanding … it’s trying to disrupt heteronormativity and cisnormativity.”
The law firm representing the parents said in a statement, “The court’s decision is an assault on children’s right to be guided by their parents on complex and sensitive issues regarding human sexuality. 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.”
In a statement about the injunction denial, MCPS said, in part:
“The decision comes after plaintiffs filed a motion for preliminary injunction in June and following a hearing on Aug. 9 before District Judge Deborah L. Boardman. MCPS remains committed to cultivating an inclusive and welcoming learning environment and creating opportunities where all students see themselves and their families in curriculum materials.”
In a statement about the injunction denial, MCPS said, in part:
“The decision comes after plaintiffs filed a motion for preliminary injunction in June and following a hearing on August 9 before District Judge Deborah L. Boardman. MCPS remains committed to cultivating an inclusive and welcoming learning environment and creating opportunities where all students see themselves and their families in curriculum materials.”
MCPS said, “We also will continue to adhere to our responsibility to include instructional materials that reflect the diversity of the local and global community by exploring the aspirations, issues, and achievements of women and men, people with disabilities, people from diverse racial, ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds, as well as those of diverse gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.”
In Maryland, students are allowed to opt out of certain lessons, such as the “family life and human sexuality” curriculum, a unit referenced in the state’s health education framework. The central argument in the lawsuit is that those requesting an opt-out claim the elementary-level books introduce similar topics around sexuality and gender identity and, as such, they should be eligible for the same opt-out as the health classes.
“In our view, it’s absurd that the school board is allowing high school students to opt out of the same material when it’s presented in their health ed classes, but not elementary school kids when it’s presented during story hour,” Baxter said. The ruling on the injunction does not mean that the lawsuit stops. The court still must hear the full case, and issue a final decision. Baxter said he will appeal the decision with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. On Aug. 29, the conservative publication National Review reported that parents were pursuing an appeal to a higher court.