School district strips families of opt-out for Pride books
Parents of diverse religions sue Montgomery County Schools
The Mahmoud-Barakat, Roman, and Persak families of Montgomery County, Md., may not appear to have a lot in common. Tamer Mahmoud and Enas Barakat are Muslim with high school–age children. Chris and Melissa Persak, whose daughters are in elementary school, are Roman Catholic. Jeff Roman is also Catholic. His wife, Svitlana, is Ukrainian Orthodox, and their only son is in second grade.
But when the Montgomery County school district introduced pro-LGBT children’s books into its curriculum last year, all three families decided the content of the books didn’t line up with their religious beliefs about sexuality and marriage. Since the state of Maryland and the Montgomery County district both allow students to opt out of instruction related to family life and human sexuality, the parents declined to have their children in class for the readings. But in March, the school board announced that teachers would no longer offer notice about the LGBT material and students could not opt out, according to a federal lawsuit filed against the board last week.
“It’s a deeply American principle that parents have the right to direct their children’s religious upbringing, to direct their children’s education, especially on sensitive issues like a child’s own identity. … The job of schools is to support the parents in that effort, not cut them out of the process,” William Haun, senior counsel with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told WORLD. The Becket Fund filed the lawsuit on behalf of the families.
The suit cites examples from one book designed for preschoolers that tells children what they could look for at a Pride parade: an intersex flag, a drag queen, a drag king, underwear, and leather. Another book, for fourth graders, depicts a girl with a romantic crush on a female classmate.
In Born Ready: The True Story of a Boy Named Penelope, a mom defends her young daughter’s insistence that she is a boy, telling another child that “not everything needs to make sense.” The book says that children, not parents or other adults, are the best teachers about their gender identity.
Born Ready’s resource guide instructs teachers to tell students not to make negative comments about gender or ask questions about another child’s gender identity. The guide tells educators to teach students that when people are born, doctors and parents “make a guess” about each person’s gender. “Sometimes they’re right, and sometimes they’re wrong,” it says, according to the lawsuit. “Our body parts do not decide our gender. Our gender comes from inside—we might feel different than what people tell us we are. We know ourselves best.”
“It’s a ‘child knows best’ view of human sexuality,” Haun said. “And that leads to the kind of life-altering decisions that the Montgomery County Public Schools as a function of this curriculum are cutting the parents out of.”
The introduction of the books into the curriculum raised concern among hundreds of parents in the nearly 160,000-student system, according to the lawsuit. At a January board meeting, a parent criticized My Rainbow, an elementary school book about a mom crafting a rainbow wig for her transgender child. “This is not instruction, it is indoctrination,” the parent said. The lawsuit claims a board member responded, “Yes, ignorance and hate does exist in our community.”
The board said it decided to remove the opt-out option because it classified the material as part of the English language arts curriculum instead of human sexuality curriculum. As such, teachers would not be required to send home letters to inform families when the books are read.
“You know, no child is born otherizing, marginalizing, thinking somebody else is not as good as they are,” board member Lynne Harris said, according to the lawsuit. “Saying that a kindergartener can’t be present when you read a book about a rainbow unicorn because it offends your religious rights or your family values or your core beliefs is just telling that kid, ‘Here’s another reason to hate another person.’”
Haun said the case tests the question of whether public institutions are committed to respecting all viewpoints. “In addition to that, though, is the right of parents to always direct their [children’s] religious upbringing,” he said. “It can’t be the case that simply sending your child to a public school means you’ve lost the ability to form your child at all.”
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