Federal court declines to require Maryland school district to allow parental opt-out from language arts reading curriculum that includes LGBTQ+ characters

by | Sep 5, 2023

As students across the country return to school, so do the increasing disputes brought by parents concerned about public school lessons they object to on religious grounds. One recent lawsuit in Maryland brought by a group of Muslim and Christian plaintiffs appears headed to a federal appeals court, and it bears watching.

A district court in Maryland rejected a bid by a group of parents, which include Muslim and Christian families, for a preliminary injunction requiring Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) to allow them to opt their children out of reading books with LGBTQ+ characters because the books conflict with their religious beliefs. The court’s ruling leaves the no opt-out policy in place while the suit is pending.

The court emphasized that the reading and discussion curriculum does not appear to indoctrinate students or coerce them to change their religious beliefs, and thus it is not a burden on their religious exercise under the First Amendment. Here is an excerpt from the opinion:

The evidence suggests that, generally, MCPS teachers will occasionally read one of the handful of books, lead discussions and ask questions about the characters, and respond to questions and comments in ways that encourage tolerance for different views and lifestyles. That is not indoctrination.

“Public schools are not obliged to shield individual students from ideas which potentially are religiously offensive, particularly when the school imposes no requirement that the student” violate his or her faith during classroom instruction.

With or without an opt-out right, the parents remain free to pursue their sacred obligations to instruct their children in their faiths. Even if their children’s exposure to religiously offensive ideas makes the parents’ efforts less likely to succeed, that does not amount to a government-imposed burden on their religious exercise.

In denying a preliminary injunction, the court suggested that further facts could be developed in trial that would weigh in the plaintiffs’ favor – for example, if children were required to discuss topics prohibited by their religion or share personal information about themselves or their families. But the court found that “nothing in the current record” supports that conclusion at this stage.  

For more on this story, see coverage by Religion News Service’s Fiona André highlighting the tension between protecting the rights of parents to control their children’s upbringing and the school district’s need to cultivate belonging and inclusiveness for all schoolchildren, including those of minority faiths.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the plaintiff parents, has announced its intention to appeal the decision to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Stay tuned.