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Somali American Muslim families receive parental rights win

District allows families to opt their children out of LGBTQ curriculum

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Somali American Muslim families receive parental rights win

A Minnesota school district has allowed six Somali American families to opt out of sexuality-based curriculum materials, protecting the families’ First Amendment rights.

The St. Louis Park Public School District had initially denied the families’ requests for their children to use alternate materials until two legal organizations stepped in and sent letters to school officials.

Last October, the families learned that teachers were introducing their elementary-age children to books advocating for LBGTQ identities, including gender fluidity and transgenderism, and hosting classroom discussions that promoted these identities. The families, who have immigrated from Somalia over the past two decades, are devout Muslims, and the curriculum went against their deeply held religious beliefs.

When the parents submitted a request to exempt their children from the instruction, officials told them it was impossible to fulfill, according to a November letter that legal organization First Liberty Institute sent to the district.

The parents reached out to school officials several more times and expressed their concerns. One of the mothers testified at an October school board meeting where she shared how the books urged her children to “delve into their own understanding of sexuality and gender identity.”

“This approach sincerely infringes on our religious beliefs,” she told the school board. WORLD is not naming the mother to protect her child’s privacy. “It is disheartening that these books were introduced to our children without our knowledge or consent, leaving us with no recourse to opt them out, despite our sincere religious objections.”

One of the school board members openly opposed her.

“Queer people exist, we’re here, we’re going to continue to be here. And there’s going to continue to be books in our community and our schools reflecting our identity,” said school board member Sarah Davis, who is in a same-sex marriage. “I respect your religious beliefs, and also as a queer person in a marginalized community, I would hope and expect solidarity.”

After struggling to make progress with the school, the families contacted First Liberty Institute, which sent the November letter to the district requesting that it comply with the parents’ First Amendment rights.

Parents’ right to direct their children’s religious upbringing is protected by the First Amendment’s free exercise clause, said Kayla Toney, associate counsel at First Liberty. This includes giving them a say in what their children read at school, she said.

Additionally, the parents have a right to opt out based on Minnesota law, which requires that school districts allow parents to “review the content of the instructional materials to be provided to a minor child.” Schools must also provide children with “reasonable arrangements” for alternative curriculum.

Despite this, school officials responded to the letter by giving parents an opt-out procedure that required them to list their reasons and didn’t give them adequate time to review the materials, Toney said. First Liberty sent another letter to officials, and following this, the school granted the families their full rights.

Toney called this a huge win, pointing out that school officials publicly acknowledged that the parental rights extended not only to the elementary schools but also to the middle and high schools.

The school district issued a statement last week arguing that its decision to provide the opt-outs was bound by state law. Kate Maguire, the interim superintendent, said in the statement that the school is proud of the “diverse” and “inclusive” curriculum and environment it offers.

However, diversity and inclusion means “respecting all people, including people with sincerely held religious beliefs,” said Renee Carlson, general counsel of True North Legal, which partnered with First Liberty to send the letters. These Somali-American families “bravely” fought to protect their children and their religious beliefs, she added.

“Opt-outs simply provide alternative learning instruction for students,” Carlson said. “They are a workable, pluralistic solution that respects our diverse society and the First Amendment’s protection for religious exercise.”

It’s “incredible” how much resistance these families faced to achieve this, she said. She has never seen a Minnesota school give parents so much opposition, she said.

Some lawmakers and other groups have voiced their opposition to the opt-outs since they were announced, Carlson said.

At a news conference held by the Minnesota Queer Legislators Caucus last Thursday, one LGBTQ activist said that the opt-outs are “not in the benefit of anybody” and that “Minnesota schools have an obligation to uphold and protect LGBTQ families and youth.”

First Liberty attorney Toney said that parents across the country are becoming increasingly concerned with the education their children are receiving at school.

In Maryland, parents from a variety of faiths—including Islam, Roman Catholicism, and Orthodox Christianity—are currently fighting for similar rights for their elementary-age children. Last August, a district court ruled against the families. They appealed the decision to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and are awaiting a ruling.

Cases like these seek to protect the rights of parents of all beliefs, Toney said.

“The First Amendment specifically protects religious exercise and that’s why we’re so thankful to have helped these clients,” Toney said. “Faith is really at the core of many Americans’ identity and it’s not something we give up, regardless of where we choose to send our children to school.”

Liz Lykins

Liz is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.


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