A federal court in Maryland ruled Thursday that parents don't have a fundamental right to opt their children out of LGBTQ curriculum based on their religious beliefs, but parents believe this ruling to be unconstitutional and plan to appeal the decision.
In Mahmoud v. McKnight, a federal court in the state of Maryland denied parents the right to be notified when their elementary-age children read books in their school curriculum that address sensitive issues, including gender and human sexuality. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing the parents, argued the notice and opt-out ban at Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) violates Maryland law and the school board's own policies, as well as the constitutional rights of parents to direct the upbringing of their children.
"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," the federal court ruling stated.
Grace Morrison, a Catholic mother whose daughter with Down Syndrome is enrolled in an MCPS elementary school, told Fox News Digital she is fighting against the district's policy that no longer gives parents the option to opt their child out of the curriculum because she said the content would rob her 10-year-old daughter of her innocence.
Morrison said parents of were very alarmed when they found out MCPS schools would be teaching books about sexuality and gender ideology with no parental opt out or notification and was forced to keep her daughter home from school when the materials were being presented.
"As parents... We are the first primary educators of our children," she said. "We join with the teachers to help in the education of our daughter. We have entrusted them to cover the basic academics, and we also retain our right to raise our daughter in the faith that we so choose."
"The school has overstepped this right and it's presenting and indoctrinating our children with ideology that's absolutely opposed to our faith, so it's very alarming and upsetting," she added.
Morrison is a founding member of the Kids First Association, which consists of parents and teachers of all faiths who are interested in restoring the opt-out option and restoring parental notification in the Montgomery County Public Schools.
In the lawsuit, three families of Muslim, Catholic and Ukrainian Orthodox faith whose elementary-aged children attend MCPS schools filed suit because they objected to the school district's decision to remove the parental right policy regarding curriculum that features pride parades, gender transitioning and pronoun preferences for children starting in pre-kindergarten, according to a Becket press release.
Last school year, in an effort to reflect the diversity of the school community, the school board incorporated a collection of books to its English language arts curriculum that many families objected to. The parents who filed the lawsuit said they believe "all persons should be respected regardless of sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or other characteristics," but have "religious objections to the storybooks," according to the court's opinion reviewed by Fox News Digital.
Up until March, parents in MCPS had the ability to opt their child out of instruction that was related to family life or human sexuality in the school system, which is part of the reason why there were so surprised when the school board made the "abrupt" overnight change that took this discretion away, Morrison explained.
"Especially with a child with Down Syndrome, just because of her abilities, if very day we're asking her to listen to what her teacher says… for her to go to school and learn something from the teacher directly, and now to have her come home and have to tell her, 'Well, what the teacher taught you isn't what we believe,' for a child like her, that's going to be very confusing."
"I think confusing to most children, but especially in her situation," she added. "I know as her mother and her father knows as well, that this is not something we can easily undo."
MCPS told Fox News Digital it remains committed to creating "an inclusive and welcoming learning environment and creating opportunities where all students see themselves and their families in curriculum materials."
"We also will continue to adhere to our responsibility to include instructional materials that reflect the diversity of the local and global community by exploring the aspirations, issues, and achievements of women and men, people with disabilities, people from diverse racial, ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds, as well as those of diverse gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation," the statement said.
The new books added to the pre-kindergarten through fifth grade curriculum to promote diversity, according to the school board, champion "controversial ideology around gender and sexuality," according to Becket.
For example, one book titled "Pride Puppy" asks three and four-year-olds to find images based on a word bank that includes "intersex flag," "drag queen," "underwear," "leather," as well as the name of a celebrated LGBTQ activist and sex worker. In another book, teachers are instructed to say doctors only "guess" when identifying a newborn’s sex.
One book titled, "Born Ready: The True Story of a Boy Named Penelope," promotes what Becket calls "a child-knows-best approach" to gender transitioning. In one part, a mother tells her children that the decision to transition doesn’t have to "make sense" and later when a child explains their chosen gender to the teacher, the teacher describes herself as the student learning from the child's experience.
"For one, it is opposed to our religion, but it is also harmful to our daughter's innocence, and we believe harmful to many children's innocence, but we know for a fact with our daughter, it would be harmful to her innocence to hear these things," Morrison said.
Senior Counsel at Becket, William Haun, told Fox News Digital that the First Amendment and American tradition, guarantees parents the right to direct their children's religious upbringing, which he said extends to public education.
"Courts traditionally have upheld that right in public school and the right of parents to make educational choices more broadly that with the religious formation they're giving to their kids," he explained. "Maryland law requires all the school districts in Maryland, to provide opt-outs on all instruction in family life and human sexuality," including other counties in the state and 32 states nationwide.
"But unfortunately, the school board here reversed course in a way that cuts parents out of these really complex and sensitive issues that go to the core of their authority as parents that is both unnecessary and unconstitutional," he added.
In November 2022, the MCPS elementary school principals expressed concern about the content of some of the books that would require them to make comments that were dismissive of children's religious beliefs, would shame dissenting children and require teachers to state things as fact that some would not agree are fact, but the school board forged ahead anyway, Haun explained.
"That goes against all of the policies and legal provisions that I mentioned, and it's creating needless conflicts when public schools are meant to be partnering with the parents and the education of their children," Haun added.
"Parents know and love their children best; that’s why all kids deserve to have their parents help them understand issues like gender identity and sexuality," said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. "The School Board’s decision to cut parents out of these discussions flies in the face of parental freedom, childhood innocence, and basic human decency."
The case will be appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals with oral arguments expected in the fall, where Becket will ask the court to respect the parents' religious freedom and parental rights, so that they can raise their children in accordance with their faith.
"The court’s decision is an assault on children’s right to be guided by their parents on complex and sensitive issues regarding human sexuality," Baxter said. "The School Board should let kids be kids and let parents decide how and when to best educate their own children consistent with their religious beliefs."
Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that MCPS could continue to keep students' gender transitions from parents because the court said plaintiffs didn't have standing in the case because they did not allege their children were transgender.
The case was brought by three parents of students at MCPS over the district's "gender support plan," which was adopted by the Montgomery County Board of Education in 2020-2021 and addressed a transgender-identifying student's name, pronouns, athletics, extracurricular activities, locker rooms, bathrooms, "safe spaces, safe zones, and other safety supports." Plaintiffs in the case dubbed the guideline in question, the "Parental Preclusion Policy," which their lawyers with the National Legal Foundation argued were a violation of their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.
"Prior to contacting a student’s parent/guardian, the principal or identified staff member should speak with the student to ascertain the level of support the student either receives or anticipates receiving from home," the guidelines states.
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