GREENBELT, Md.—Muslim and Christian parents protested Wednesday outside the U.S. District Court of Maryland two hours before the court would hear arguments about the Montgomery County school district’s refusal to allow them to opt their children out of the LGBTQ book curriculum “Pride Storybooks.”
Grace Morrison, a Catholic mother who has a daughter with Down syndrome enrolled in Montgomery County Public Schools, told The Daily Signal that the school board’s decision to deny parents the right to opt their children out of Pride Storybooks is “an attack on children.”
“Not allowing children to just be children is sort of an attack on their innocence,” Morrison said. “Especially having a child with special needs, they already have such challenges in their life to then add this … just feels especially cruel.”
In March, the local school board announced to parents that schools would be implementing a new LGBTQ book curriculum for pre-K through fifth graders. Parents were notified that, unlike previous years, they would not be allowed to opt their children out of this program and will not be notified when their children will be reading the material.
Now they are asking the court to force the school board to give the parents the right to opt out of Pride Storybooks that “shame children” for their religious faith, by Aug. 28.
“If they’re trying to teach them something that goes against our faith … it’s not even just faith, if it goes against what they should not be learning at the proper age, we should have the choice to take them out of that curriculum,” Dagmawi Lakew, an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian and father of several children in the Montgomery County school district, told The Daily Signal.
Lakew added that he is unsure why the school district, which has a policy stipulating that parents have the right to opt their children out of matters related to “family and sexuality,” decided to take away the right to opt out on these particular lessons.
“We used to have it, I’m not sure why they all of the sudden [took it away], unless they are just trying to force it on our children,” he said.
The religious freedom law firm Becket represents the parents in their lawsuit against the school board. In Wednesday’s hearing, the parents sought a preliminary injunction to restore the opt-out policy before school starts while litigation continues. The parents are not challenging the school district’s Pride Storybooks curriculum, only the policy preventing parents from opting their children out of the lessons.
“Within Maryland—Baltimore County, Carol County, Frederick County—counties within the state all acknowledge different ways of teaching this material that don’t require cutting parents out of the process,” Becket Senior Counsel William Haun told The Daily Signal after the hearing. “Montgomery County has never explained what’s so special about this place that it has to do something totally different from what it was doing until March 22 of this year.”
“The First Amendment protects all of us from arbitrary power and protects all of us to direct our children’s religious upbringing,” Haun explained. “An opt-out policy that allows everybody to stand side-by-side does exactly that. It protects us against arbitrary power and protects our right to direct our children’s religious future.”
Attorney Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, spoke during the oral arguments Wednesday. He noted that the parents “are not challenging the existence of the curriculum as it is. We are only challenging the ability to opt out, which Montgomery County allowed until March 23.”
Baxter also emphasized that while the county denies parents the right to opt out of the elementary LGBTQ curriculum, the school board still permits opt outs for health education classes or when the school’s band or choir performs a Christian hymn.
Denying parents the right to opt out directly contradicts the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion, Baxter argued.
Rather than recognizing this right, the school board is “pressuring” parents to either remain in the public schools and “modify their religious beliefs” that directly contradict the material being taught or leave the public school system,” the Becket vice president said.
For many of these parents, leaving the public school system and enrolling in a private school or homeschooling is not a financial option, Baxter told the judge.
Alan Schoenfeld, a partner at WilmerHale who represents the Montgomery County School Board, argued that the “mere exposure to those sorts of texts” does not qualify as “pressure,” does not prevent parents from teaching their children religion, and “does not violate the First Amendment.”
Baxter countered that young children look up to and trust their teachers, so kids, especially those with special needs, will likely become confused and fail to question what their teachers say if they are not ready to understand the lessons.
Baxter repeatedly emphasized that the parents are not asking for the school board to abolish its Pride Storybooks program but to simply respect the parents’ right to opt their children out of lessons that not only conflict with their religious beliefs but also introduce their children to material that they are not prepared to understand as kindergarteners.
After the court hearing, Haun told The Daily Signal that “school starts in Montgomery County on Aug. 28. The judge understood that clearly and promised to rule by Aug. 28 to either bring the opt-out policy back or to keep the opt-out ban in effect. If it’s the second one, if the ban is to remain, then the next step is going to be an appeal.”
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