At public schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, parents and students can opt out of Halloween, Valentine’s Day, and even birthday celebrations based on religious grounds. What they cannot opt out of is instruction in queer and transgender ideology, even if their First Amendment-protected, faith-based beliefs run contrary to progressive mores.
In the fall of 2022, following the results of an “Antiracist System Audit” commissioned the prior year, the Montgomery County Board of Education introduced 22 new “LGBTQ+-inclusive texts” for use in pre-K through eighth grade classrooms.
One book approved for four-year-olds is Pride Puppy, a Where’s Waldo?-esque puzzle book that encourages children to search for images of drag queens, leather, lip rings and underwear based on letters of the alphabet. Other approved works focus on gender transition and same-sex infatuation. Born Ready: The True Story of a Boy Named Penelope, which is approved for fifth graders, and emphasizes a child’s agency in the decision to transition, arguing that such choices don’t have to “make sense.”
In the State of Maryland, instruction on family life and sex education requires parental notification and the ability to opt out. It’s the same story across 32 other states that either require an opt-out plan or an affirmative decision to opt into such teachings.
The Montgomery County School Board’s own guidelines require the same, even allowing for “excus[ing] students who do not want to participate” in “activities” that “may be viewed by others as having religious overtones,” including “birthdays or other occasions that many may consider to be secular, such as Halloween and Valentine’s Day.”
At first, following introduction of the new curriculum, requests to opt out were honored. Then, the Board issued a statement changing course:
“[T]here is as an expectation that teachers utilize these inclusive lessons and texts with all students. ... Students and families may not choose to opt out of engaging with any instructional materials, other than ‘Family Life and Human Sexuality Unit of Instruction’ which is specifically permitted by Maryland law. As such, teachers will not send home letters to inform families when inclusive books are read in the future.”
Just like that, every parent of a school-aged child in Montgomery County was denied the right to decide for themselves when to introduce their children to issues of gender and sexuality. There are more than 70,000 school-aged children in Montgomery County.
Concerned parents have since organized under the banner of Kids First. A lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland (Mahmoud v. McKnight) on behalf of that association – as well as individual parents of varying religious backgrounds – alleges violations of Maryland state law, the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, and of substantive due process guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief to reinstate the opt-out plan.
At Protect The 1st, we believe that it is the mission of schools to educate children, but it is the job of parents to raise them. Progressive parents who want to teach their children these perspectives are free to do so. But forcing this curriculum on families shows blatant disrespect for pluralism and the role of religion in many families.
This case is particularly salient because it involves plaintiffs of diverse religious beliefs united under a common cause. Too often, such controversies are seen by the media through the lens of conservative Christianity, when it’s also the case that Muslims and those of other religious backgrounds often hold conservative, faith-based views on gender and sexuality.
As for the merits of the case, Maryland law plainly states that “The local school system shall provide an opportunity for parents/guardians to view instructional materials to be used in the teaching of family life and human sexuality objectives.” It further requires “policies, guidelines, and/or procedures for student opt-out regarding instruction related to family life and human sexuality objectives.”
The Board’s interpretation that these books don’t implicate family life and human sexuality is plainly preposterous – just as one board member’s contention that religious belief fosters hate is patently offensive.
What’s more, long-standing precedent recognizes “the rights of parents to direct ‘the religious upbringing’ of their children.” A critical case is Wisconsin v. Yoder, in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that an Amish family’s right to the free exercise of religion outweighed Wisconsin’s interest in compelling school attendance beyond eighth grade. Specifically, that case noted that schools are not “empowered ... to ‘save’ a child from himself or his [religious] parents” by imposing “compulsory” education to “influence ... the religious future of the child.”
Such precedent tells us that the Montgomery County School Board’s position is unlikely to survive a strict scrutiny analysis. We also know that schools do best when they focus on quality instruction on primary subjects and skills.
Leave the values to parents.