A large school district near Washington says it banned opt-outs from lessons based on books featuring gay and transgender characters because too many parents requested their children be excused from the lessons.
Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) in Maryland banned opt-outs on March 23, after initially allowing some students to leave classrooms when the lessons were taught.
District guidelines allow schools to adjust their curriculum to “accommodate requests from students, or requests from parents/guardians on behalf of their students, to be excused from specific classroom discussions or activities that they believe would impose a substantial burden on their religious beliefs.” If the requests grow to be “too frequent or too burdensome,” however, schools can refuse to accommodate them.
Teachers and principals initially allowed students to be excused when the newly introduced books were read in class, Niki Hazel, a district official who oversees the pre-kindergarten to 12th-grade curriculum, wrote in a declaration to federal court.
But in a meeting in March with school officials, the district “became aware that individual principals and teachers could not accommodate the growing number of opt out requests without causing significant disruptions to the classroom environment and undermining MCPS’s educational mission,” Ms. Hazel claimed.
At one elementary school, parents requested dozens of students not take part in the instruction based on the newly introduced books, officials said.
The total number of requests across the district was not specified, nor was a breakdown of how many were based on religious concerns.
The district came to conclude that allowing any opt outs “would defeat its efforts to ensure a classroom environment that is safe and conducive to learning for all students,” Ms. Hazel said. Students represented in the books could be “exposed to social stigma and isolation” as a result of other students leaving the classroom when the instruction happened, she added.
The district told parents on March 23 that no further requests would be entertained “for any reason,” and any requests already granted would only be accommodated until the end of the school year.
New Books Spark Pushback
District officials were responding to an attempt to block the ban on opt-outs, part of widespread pushback to the books, which were introduced at the start of the 2022–23 school year.
District officials said review of the books in its curriculum determined they “were not representative of many students and families in Montgomery County because they did not include LGBTQ characters.” That prompted the introduction of 13 new books featuring such characters, including one book that shows a family attending a parade featuring gay and transgender people and a girl meeting her uncle’s future husband.
A group of staffers reviewed the new materials before they were introduced and took parent feedback into account before introducing them to students who, according to the suit, are as young as 3. The staffers recommended introducing the books because they found the books “contained narratives and illustrations that would be accessible and engaging to students, and featured characters of diverse backgrounds whose stories and families students could relate to,” according to the district.
Plaintiffs, including several Muslim parents, sued after the ban was announced, arguing their constitutional rights are being violated.
One of the issues is a state law that says, regarding family life and human sexuality materials, that students “may be excused from this unit of the program upon written request from their parent/guardian.”
That means the district is running afoul of the law, plaintiffs say.
“By refusing notice and opt-outs—and forcibly exposing children to complex and confusing questions about their sexuality and gender identity at such a young age—the school board is infringing the parents’ and children’s religious beliefs and interfering with the parents’ ability to form their children in their distinct faiths,” they said in a motion for a preliminary injunction. “This interference violates the Free Exercise and Due Process Clauses under decades of Supreme Court precedent.”
District officials argued the law only applies to certain parts of the curriculum, not English language arts.
The U.S. Constitution provides for the right of Americans to practice religion, provided the practice does not clash with a compelling governmental interest.
The plaintiffs asked a U.S. judge to reinstate the opt-outs that were allowed until March. They noted the books contain messaging encouraging children to question their sexuality and think positively of gender transitions.
In urging the court not to impose the injunction, county officials said that they were following state law that requires districts to make sure there is “educational equity,” which is defined as viewing each student’s characteristics as valuable. Characteristics, according to the law, include their ethnicity, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
They also said that district guidelines do not require opt-outs and that their actions did not violate the parents’ constitutional rights.
The policy requiring students to hear the instruction with gay and transgender content “does not infringe Plaintiffs’ free exercise rights because it does not penalize or prohibit their religious practice, nor does it curtail their freedom to direct the religious upbringing of their children,” the district said.
Even if it does, the policy applies the same to everybody and is narrowly tailored to advance the district’s “compelling interests in fostering a safe and inclusive learning environment and complying with applicable nondiscrimination laws and policies,” the district added, meaning the policy is lawful.
Approximately 160,000 students attend one of 210 public schools in the county, making it Maryland’s largest school district.