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Court denies Maryland parents religious rights

Judges rule that parents cannot protect students from LGBTQ books

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Court denies Maryland parents religious rights

A federal court on Wednesday denied Maryland parents the right to opt their children out of school lessons that promote LGBTQ ideology. The parents plan to appeal their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, said Will Haun, senior counsel at Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the legal organization that represents the parents.

More than 300 families want to opt their children out of reading books that endorse LGBTQ and transgender themes at Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, Haun said. In October 2022, the school introduced 22 books for children in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade that covered topics such as identifying as the opposite sex, marriage between people of the same sex, and “Pride parade” vocabulary.

Both state law and school policy require that parents receive advance notice of classroom instruction on topics of family life and human sexuality, Haun said. Parents can withdraw their children from that instruction.

Initially, the school followed the law and the policy when introducing the new books. But it did an about-face in March 2023, saying the books were part of the school’s English language arts curriculum instead of family life resources, making the Maryland law and opt-out policy inapplicable.

A few months later, a coalition of religious parents, including Muslims, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians, sued the school. They asked for a preliminary injunction to reinstate the opt-out policy for these books.

In August 2023, a U.S. District Court ruled against the parents. The families then appealed and on Wednesday, a panel of judges from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision.

A 2-1 majority of the panel said that because the materials don’t force children to change their beliefs, the parents aren’t entitled to opt-outs.

“There’s no evidence at present that the [school] 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, an appointee of President George W. Bush, wrote in the ruling. “Simply hearing about other views does not necessarily exert pressure to believe or act differently than one’s religious faith requires.”

Agee said the parents failed to meet the “high burden” required for a preliminary injunction. The parents needed to give evidence that the school asked children to affirm views contrary to their views on gender or sexuality, to disavow opinions on these matters, or to act in violation of their religious beliefs.

“What is missing here is the evidentiary link showing that the storybooks are being implemented in a way that directly or indirectly coerces the parents or their children to believe or act contrary to their religious faith,” Agee said. “Without such evidence, this case presents only an objection to their children’s public school curriculum.”

Haun said the 4th Circuit essentially argued that children’s innocence needs to be destroyed before parents can have the right to withdraw children from the lessons.

Additionally, the school’s policy violates both Maryland’s opt-out law and constitutional rights that allow parents to direct the religious upbringing of their children, Haun said.

“Public schools are operating in lieu of the parents; they’re operating essentially on delegated authority from the parents,” Haun said. “But a policy that’s premised on never knowing when your child is going to read something that could both destroy their innocence and violate their religion is a policy that isn’t operating off of delegated authority from the parents. It’s a policy of exclusion towards the parents. That’s unconstitutional.”

Haun said the parents are protected through the landmark 1972 Supreme Court case Wisconsin v. Yoder, in which the court found Amish parents were allowed to remove their children from high school entirely to avoid exposure to ideas against their faith.

However, Judge Agee disagreed with this defense, stating that the uniqueness of the Amish faith limits Yoder’s applicability.

U.S. Circuit Judge Marvin Quattlebaum, a Trump appointee, dissented from the majority.

“The parents have shown the [school] board’s decision to deny religious opt-outs burdened these parents’ right to exercise their religion and direct the religious upbringing of their children by putting them to the choice of either compromising their religious beliefs or foregoing a public education for their children,” Quattlebaum wrote. “I also find that the board’s actions, at least under this record, were neither neutral nor generally applicable.”

Quattlebaum noted that the school board only denied opt-out for the pro-LGBTQ books and nothing else, demonstrating that the school values LGBTQ views more than the parents’ religious views.

The 4th Circuit’s ruling means parents continue to have to contend with the curriculum in the school, Haun said, adding that at least one couple has removed their child because of the lack of an opt-out policy. But that option might not work for families that depend on public schools.

“We’re not challenging the fact that Montgomery County Public Schools adopted these books and they’re a part of the curriculum. We’re not seeking to remove the books from the curriculum or the school or anything like that,” Haun said. “What we are seeking to do is to vindicate the rights of parents to be who they are, which is the first teachers of their children.”

Liz Lykins

Liz is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.


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