Muslim, Christian Parents Revolt Over Maryland School’s ‘Required’ Gender and Sex Ed Curriculum
‘We intend to fight as long as we need to protect our parents’ rights and the rights of children.’
Muslim and Christian parents in Maryland say they are prepared to fight a court order that prevents them from opting their children out of gender and sexual education in public schools there — all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.
In several amicus briefs filed last week, parents, scholars, states, and religious organizations are urging the riders of the Fourth United States Appeals Circuit to overrule a district court decision forcing students in Montgomery County, Maryland to participate in the curriculum.
The court ruled that a group of predominantly Muslim parents have no right to opt their children out of programs which “contradict their sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage, human sexuality, and gender,” the court ruling states.
The plaintiffs subsequently filed a motion for emergency relief in the Fourth Circuit to temporarily restore opt-outs while their appeal is pending. The school board’s decision to require the curriculum reversed an earlier policy that allowed parents to exclude their children from the lessons on religious grounds.
“We intend to fight as long as we need to protect our parents’ rights and the rights of children to have the guidance of their parents,” says the senior counsel, Eric Baxter, at the non-profit law firm representing the parents, Becket, which specializes in religious freedom cases.
“There are a lot of school districts around the country that are pushing these types of issues and trying to marginalize parents, and I don’t think parents are going to stand for that,” Mr. Baxter tells the Sun, adding that he is prepared to take the lawsuit to the Supreme Court.
The federal district court, in its memorandum opinion, declared that the instructional materials in question further the Montgomery County Board of Education’s interest “in providing a safe and supportive learning environment for its students, protecting LGBTQ students’ health and safety, and complying with anti-discrimination laws.”
The school board claimed that the storybooks are “not even indirect coercion” and “not at all a burden” to students reading them.
One book featured in the schools’ curriculum, called “Born Ready,” instructs students that doctors only “guess about our gender,” but “we know ourselves best.” Another called “What Are Your Words?” teaches that pronouns are “like the weather. They change depending on how I feel.”
The material amounts to “a Christian heresy,” according to the legal counsel of a conservative think tank advocating for a Judeo-Christian interpretation of the law, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Eric Kniffin. “This curriculum teaches that some kids are born in the ‘wrong’ bodies. But since the very beginning Christians rejected as false the idea that people should seek happiness by transcending their physical bodies,” Mr. Kniffin tells the Sun.
In its brief filed in support of the plaintiffs, the policy center argues that the school board is infringing upon parents’ First Amendment rights and that its hostility toward religious minorities runs counter toward its stated goal of advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion.
The board’s determination to implement certain educational material is superseding parents’ rights to raise their children according to their deepest beliefs about life and meaning, argues the director of a faith-based parent action committee fighting the new curriculum, Family Rights for Religious Freedoms, Wael Elkoshairi.
“We send our children to learn math, science, and history,” Mr. Elkoshairi asserts. “We do not want our children being taught things that we feel are related to family life and sexuality, specifically at this age.”
Mr. Elkoshairi says that his organization is not “anti-LGBTQ,” nor does it aim to impose its religious beliefs into the county’s educational materials. Rather, he says they seek the “reasonable” right to pull their children, many of whom are as young as pre-kindergarten age, out of instruction they believe to be inappropriate.
“I found myself constantly reminding people at the Board of Education that it’s not a joke — we believe in our texts,” Mr. Elkoshairi says of his numerous meetings with the public school system regarding the curriculum, which was implemented last fall. “We believe in a higher power. This is who we are.”
The board’s behavior has generated “absolute disgust” amongst parents, Mr. Elkoshairi says, explaining that they’ve joined waiting lists at the local faith-based community schools and WhatsApp groups to homeschool their children since the policy was announced. Parents are also waging their battle politically, he explains, organizing to vote out and replace the current board membership.
Maryland serves as “a proving ground for policies nationwide” and a bellwether for the potential direction of other school systems across the country, Mr. Elkoshairi says. Montgomery county has some of the most heavily funded public schools in the United States and boasts the top three most diverse cities in the nation, according to United States census data.
The merits of the case extend beyond demands for free exercise to questions of the age appropriateness for the educational programming in question.
“It is wrong to think of it exclusively as a religious issue,” the legal counsel representing a coalition of parents who filed another amicus brief, Frederick Claybrook, tells the Sun.
Parents objecting to the curriculum yearn to approach issues of gender and sexuality with their child “in whatever way those parents believe appropriate for them,” Mr. Claybrook’s brief argues. “The school teaching on the subject in an ‘affirming’ way takes that option out of the parents’ hands.”
A group of principals from the Montgomery County elementary schools has expressed support for the parents’ opinions. They warned the Board against making kids read books that “center around sexual orientation and gender identity” even though they are “not appropriate for the intended age group,” according to Montgomery County schools training materials obtained by the court in July.
The principals expressed concern over a book shown to fourth grade students, called “Love, Violet,” in which a school-age girl falls in love with another girl in her class. “It is problematic to portray elementary school age children falling in love with other children, regardless of sexual preferences,” the principals assert.
The principals also express concerns that the board’s guidance for teaching these books was “dismissive of religious beliefs,” “shaming” to children who disagree, and flawed in presenting opinion as “fact.”
Mr. Baxter is optimistic that the Montgomery County parents will prevail in the case — if not in the Fourth Circuit, then at the Supreme Court.
“The legal arguments weigh heavily in our favor,” he says. “There’s a long tradition in American history of allowing parents to control the upbringing of their children.”