By Kate Scanlon
WASHINGTON (OSV News) — An interfaith group of Maryland parents has asked a federal appeals court to allow them to opt their children out of classroom instruction pertaining to books containing LGBTQ+ themes to which they object on religious grounds.
Becket, a Washington-based religious liberty law firm, is representing a group of parents, including Muslims, Jews, Catholics and other Christians, as they sue the school board in federal court over a Montgomery County Public Schools policy that does not allow parents to opt out of instruction using some materials containing LGBTQ+ themes. According to court documents, some of the materials in question include the book “Love, Violet,” which a Kirkus Review described as a “sweetly empathetic, child-friendly girl-girl romance.”
The parents argued that the school board violated their First Amendment rights when it reversed an earlier policy allowing families to choose whether their children receive such instruction. But earlier in August, a federal judge found that Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland’s largest public school system, does not have to give advance notice to parents so that they may opt their children out of classroom discussion and reading of books with LGBTQ+ themes while they pursue a challenge to the policy.
The lawsuit Mahmoud v. McKnight says the parents “seek the ability to opt their children out of reading and discussion of books with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer characters because the books’ messages contradict their sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage, human sexuality, and gender.”
Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said in a statement that “children deserve the guidance of their parents when learning about complex issues around gender and sexuality.”
“That’s why we are asking the Fourth Circuit to step in to protect the right of parents to guide their children’s education consistent with their religious beliefs,” Baxter said.
On its website, MCPS states that it “expects all classrooms to be inclusive and safe spaces for students, including those who identify as LGBTQ+ or have family members in the LGBTQ+ community.”
“A broad representation of personal characteristics within curricular or instructional materials promotes this desired outcome,” the statement said. “Therefore, as with all curriculum resources, there is an expectation that teachers utilize these inclusive lessons and texts with all students. As is standard practice, when planning for instruction teachers/schools are encouraged to utilize a variety of resources to continue to promote an inclusive environment as outlined in the MCPS Core Values and Board Policy.”
“Students and families,” the statement continued, “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.”
The way issues of gender are taught in the classroom and policies governing transgender students have become controversial of late. Approximately two dozen states have enacted bans on student athletes participating on sports teams corresponding with their chosen gender identity rather than biological sex, while other states have moved to protect such participation.
In guidance on health care policy and practices released March 20, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine opposed interventions that “involve the use of surgical or chemical techniques that aim to exchange the sex characteristics of a patient’s body for those of the opposite sex or for simulations thereof.”
“Any technological intervention that does not accord with the fundamental order of the human person as a unity of body and soul, including the sexual difference inscribed in the body, ultimately does not help but, rather, harms the human person,” the document states.
Several Catholic dioceses have begun forming pastoral approaches to gender dysphoria, particularly for students in Catholic schools. The Diocese of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for instance, issued guidelines in 2022 for transgender-identifying youth, directing diocesan schools to demonstrate “conformity with the student’s biological sex as determined from conception and manifest at birth and at the time of the student’s enrollment.”