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Are children now creatures of the state?

A diverse coalition of parents fights against LGBT indoctrination of their children

Protesters rally outside the Glendale Unified School District headquarters in Glendale, Calif., on June 20. Associated Press/Photo by Damian Dovarganes

Are children now creatures of the state?
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Muslim, Catholic, and Ukrainian Orthodox parents walk into court. …

No, it’s not the setup to a joke. It’s what happened two weeks ago, when the U. S. District Court for the District of Maryland heard oral arguments in a case involving parental rights and a controversial curriculum on sexuality and gender identity.

In Mahmoud v. McKnight, the court is considering whether religious parents have the right to be notified and opt their children out of a mandatory, LGBTQ+ “story hour” in a public elementary school. The case could significantly affect the ability of parents to follow the biblical command to “train up” their children in the way that they should go (Proverbs 22:6).

Though from a variety of religious backgrounds, the parents in this case share the belief that biological sex is “a God-given, immutable reality” and that sexuality between a man and a woman within marriage is a gift from God. They also share the belief that they have a sacred obligation to teach their children their respective faiths, including religiously grounded sexual ethics.

For a while, the School Board allowed just that. At the beginning of the year, Montgomery County Public Schools introduced six “LGBTQ+-inclusive” books to their story hours but promised that the readings would be “optional” and scheduled only after families were notified.

All that changed on March 23, when the School Board abruptly announced that the story hours were now mandatory and opt outs would no longer be tolerated.

The School Board’s new policy is unsound on virtually every level.

For one, it seems to run afoul of Maryland law and even the School Board’s own Religious Diversity Guidelines, both of which require schools to allow parents to opt their children out of certain activities.

More broadly, the policy violates one of the longest-standing traditions in American constitutionalism. As the Supreme Court declared in its 1925 decision of Pierce v. Society of Sisters: “The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”

The School Board’s new policy is unsound on virtually every level.

Why should parents have primary responsibility over their children’s education? According to the Anglo-American common-law tradition, because moms and dads typically love and know their own kids. As a rule, parents care for the happiness of their children; and, being present in their children’s lives, parents are uniquely positioned to “recognize” and “direct” them to what they are capable of and called to.

In fact, American law shares this presumption with Scripture. In Luke 11:11-13, Jesus illustrates how much God the Father loves us by comparing His love to the ordinary affection human parents have for their offspring:

Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? … If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

In practice, what this has meant in the American context is that, while state governments may set broad educational standards, parents retain the fundamental right to direct the particulars of their own child’s education. Indeed, in the late-nineteenth century, numerous state supreme courts upheld compulsory school-attendance laws even as they affirmed the right of parents to opt their children out of certain activities in these schools—includinggrammar instruction, singing lessons, and dance classes.

Finally, the School Board’s policy violates these parents’ religious liberty, their right to pass down their religious beliefs and practices to their children, free from unreasonable government interference. In its 1972 decision of Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Supreme Court protected the right of Amish parents to withdraw their children from all formal schooling after the eighth grade: the rights of parents to direct “the religious upbringing and education of their children in their early and formative years have a high place in our society,” the Court wrote.

In court, these Muslim, Catholic, and Ukrainian Orthodox parents were not attempting to dictate what should be taught in public schools or establish some sort of theocracy. And, despite being compared to “white supremacists” and “xenophobes” by a school-board member, they believe and teach their children that everyone is worthy of love and respect because everyone has “equal dignity before God.”

All they are asking for is the right to guide the education of their own children on questions relating to the “complex and enormously consequential” issue of sexuality and gender identity, especially at such a young, “highly impressionable” age.

Is the child the mere creature of the state? Let us pray the District Court says no.

Joseph Griffith

Joseph Griffith is an assistant professor of political science at Ashland University and the Ashbrook Scholars Program.

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