School district allows LGBTQ lesson opt-outs after legal threat by Muslim parents

White lesbian board member scolded black Muslim women for not showing "solidarity." Federal appeals court could rule on similar suburban D.C. case "any day."
Ho'Onani: Hula Warrior

Christian, Jewish and Muslim families in suburban D.C. are waiting for a federal appeals court to determine whether their school district can continue requiring their children to read LGBTQ "storybooks" without parental knowledge or consent.

Eleven hundred miles away in a similarly blue jurisdiction led by the United States' first known Somali-American mayor, Muslim immigrant families who escaped a war-torn country didn't have to go to court to have their parental rights honored.

St. Louis Park Schools in suburban Minneapolis agreed to notify six Somali-American families before their children are exposed to "LGBTQ-affirming books" and let them opt out of the instruction, their lawyers at First Liberty Institute and True North Legal said Tuesday.

That's a marked change from an Oct. 24 board meeting at which some of those parents asked for notice and opt-out. A white lesbian board member at the end of the meeting scolded the women of color, who all wore hijabs, for refusing "solidarity" with another "historically marginalized" community.

Aquila Elementary School Principal María Graver rejected an Oct. 6, 2023, opt-out "because of the large number of requests that would come in," according to the public interest law firms' Dec. 7 letter to SLPS.

That echoes the belated logistical rationale by Maryland's Montgomery County Public Schools after getting sued. 

MCPS has refused to specify how many opt-out requests it received after introducing the disputed books, which expose children as young as 3 to sex workers, kink, drag, gender transitions and same-sex romance. The alleged flood was not mentioned in internal communications obtained in legal discovery.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in December, with Democrat-run states supporting MCPS and Republican-run states the parents. Their lawyers at the Becket religious liberty law firm told Just the News on Tuesday the court could rule "any day."

First Liberty declined to share SPLS's written responses to its clients due to student privacy, even with redactions, but told Just the News the notices cover "[a]ny planned instructional materials and lessons/assignments by the teacher on the topic of LGBTQ+ sexuality."

SLPS's responses name three books already foisted on the children starting in second grade, according to First Liberty: "My Shadow Is Pink," about a gender-nonconforming boy who wears a dress; "Our Subway Baby," based on the true story of an unmarried gay couple adopting an abandoned baby; and "Ho’onani: Hula Warrior," which celebrates nonbinary identity.

"We were fully prepared to go to court and expected that we'd need to," First Liberty lawyer Kayla Toney told Just the News, calling the district's response a surprise.

The district's Dec. 1 newsletter, a month after the first legal warning letter, notified families they could request "alternative instructional materials" but didn't mention gender and sexuality despite mentioning many other curricular changes.

"We understand that families may have diverse perspectives and preferences when it comes to the curriculum, reading materials and literature topics covered in the classroom," the newsletter says.

Toney said First Liberty considers this an adequate response to its concerns, though SPLS spokesperson Rachel Hicks told Just the News it told parents what was coming several months ago and "[t]hese communications were unrelated to First Liberty."

Hicks pointed to its June newsletter laying out the curriculum and program review process, which mentions "racial equity" but not LGBTQ themes, and its November newsletter, which said some new K-5 materials "reflect storylines of LGBTQ+ students" and names "Our Subway Baby" and "I Like Myself."

"We are committed to ensuring that the district’s learning communities honor and respect the identities of all of our students, families, staff and broader community, including diverse gender identity and gender expression," reads an SPLS statement Hicks provided.

SLPS has "always complied with the state law" on parental opt-out rights and the alternative curriculum process goes back to 2006. "We have clarified our procedures across all schools to ensure a collaborative and consistent approach to requests for alternative curriculum and provided information to all families about the process for seeking alternative curriculum."

It denounced opt-outs "based on representation of protected classes" as undermining "safe and inclusive learning and working environments in our schools," but acknowledged "it is required within state law."

The statement specifies that "class discussions do not constitute instructional materials and are not subject to review or opt outs." 

The Muslim families said their "third, fourth, and fifth grade children" told them in October their English teachers were using the LGBTQ books, though at least one lesson happened the previous school year, according to First Liberty-True North's Nov. 2 letter to the district.

"The readings were accompanied by the teachers’ commentary about what it means to be LGBTQ," with students required to "write about" Ho’onani in one class. The letter said the no-exemption practice violates the First Amendment, Minnesota law and SPLS's own policies.

Principal Graver ignored School Board Policy 632, under which students "may be excused" from "controversial issues upon written parental request," when the families met with her Oct. 6, according to the letter.

She denied opt-outs because their children have "friends with LGBT parents" and "LGBT teachers." (The Dec. 7 letter adds Graver's logistical justification.) Principal Clarence Pollock didn't follow through on his Oct. 24 opt-out promise to another client, the letter says.

Three Somali-American mothers shared their requests during open comment at the Oct. 24 school board meeting, saying the teaching "appears to exceed the boundaries of affirmation" and that "diversity and inclusion [...] should extend to all members of the community, including religious families like ours."

Video shows school board member Sarah Davis responding to the women late in the meeting and board Chairwoman Anne Casey cutting them off when they tried to defend themselves.

"Queer people exist, we're here, we're going to continue to be here and there's going to continue to be books in our community and in our schools reflecting our identity," Davis said in a 3-minute statement, citing her wife and second-grade child in the school.

"I respect your religious beliefs," but "as a queer person in a marginalized community I would hope and expect solidarity," she said. "Muslim communities have been historically marginalized and so have queer communities, and it is disappointing in St. Louis Park to have this come up."

Less than two minutes after saying she was "willing to engage in this conversation" with Muslim women, Davis said she was "not going to engage." Casey then called for a motion to adjourn over the parents' objections, which the board approved.

The district created an "Alternative Learning Procedure" following the Nov. 2 warning letter, but  it still lacks prior notice and creates a chilling effect on parents by requiring them to "explain their beliefs in detail,"  the law firms' Dec. 7 letter says. 

Graver sent the parents "vague" documents Nov. 29 that don't list the materials in detail or say what days they will be taught, violating state law and "impeding" their ability to "adequately submit opt-out requests," according to the letter.

Somali-Americans aren't the only parents dissuaded by the district's procedure, the firms said, citing Orthodox Christian Amharic Ethiopians, Muslim and Orthodox Oromo Ethiopians and Afghan refugees, "most" of whom don't have legal representation.