School district bans opt-out from LGBTQ lessons because too many families opted out

D.C. suburb says injunction on mandatory "storybooks" with sex workers, kink, drag, gender transitions would cause "significant disruption," stigmatize children, violate federal law.

Published: July 21, 2023 11:22pm

An affluent liberal D.C. suburb has a simple explanation for why it won't honor parents' requests to exclude their children, some as young as 3 years old, from "storybooks" with sex workers, kink, drag, gender transitions and same-sex romance for elementary-age children: It's hard.

Maryland's Montgomery County Public Schools claims it was flooded with opt-out requests when the books were introduced in the curriculum in January, giving it legal justification, on logistical grounds, to issue a blanket policy of no exceptions and no notifications.

The district didn't provide a specific number or even vague range, however, in its memorandum opposing the motion for preliminary injunction by Catholic, Muslim and Ukrainian-Orthodox parents who filed the First and Fourteenth Amendment lawsuit in May.

The July 6 amended complaint adds plaintiff Kids First, a new unincorporated association of Montgomery County parents with children in MCPS or who would be "but for" the new policy. It includes "Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Latter-day Saints, and Jews, and is open to individuals of all faiths."

MCPS spokesperson Christopher Cram told Just the News he was seeking "any information available" on the number of requests the school invoked to justify the new policy but couldn't provide anything Friday. The districts' lawyers didn't respond when asked. 

The district imposed the no-exception and no-notification policy March 23, a day after it told the media it would honor requests and issue notifications, which united parents across the religious spectrum in opposition.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a reliably liberal advocacy group on most issues, has been especially vocal and visible in challenging the policy.

"Public schools have an obligation to be inclusive and neutral," Maryland Director Zainab Chaudry said at a multifaith rally Thursday. "They can't be favoring one group over another."

MCPS is the only known district nationwide to go this far, setting "a dangerous precedent for more bullying, more harassment, more intimidation for children within schools," according to Chaudry. "We can't teach children allyship and tolerance and inclusion by forcing them to assimilate" and give up "their own diverse identities."

Cram didn't answer when asked to evaluate Chaudry's claim about MCPS pioneering a no-exception policy.

MCPS "cannot plausibly claim that an opt-out policy that is both required by state law and was willingly followed until March 2023 could somehow harm the public interest if followed for the duration of this case," the parents' June 12 memorandum in support of a preliminary injunction states.

Maryland law requires districts to honor "family life and human sexuality" curriculum opt-outs "for any reason," and MCPS policy directs schools to "accommodate requests" from students and parents for classroom content "they believe would impose a substantial burden on their religious beliefs," the memo also states.

In addition, the storybooks go beyond "basic civility and kindness toward all," explicitly encouraging children to "question sexuality and gender identity, focus on romantic feelings, and embrace gender transitioning," the memo reads. 

Pre-kindergarten students, for example, are required to read Pride Puppy, which "promotes pride parades as family-friendly events without cautioning about the frequent nudity and sexually explicit conduct that many parents find objectionable –especially for children."

MCPS policy never guaranteed parents exemptions from the storybooks, just "reasonable and feasible adjustments" specifically for religious beliefs, while expressly warning they may be refused if requests become "too frequent or too burdensome," the district's July 12 memo against the injunction states.

"Through conversations with principals, MCPS became aware that individual schools could not accommodate the growing number of opt-out requests without causing significant disruptions to the classroom environment and undermining MCPS’s educational mission," according to the memo.

Excusing children from the storybooks is also at odds with the school district's "efforts to cultivate an inclusive and welcoming learning environment" and would "undermine its goals of reducing stigmatization and fostering social integration of all students and families," the memo reads.

The district also challenged the portrayal of the requests as uniformly rooted in religious belief, even though the plaintiffs did not limit their constitutional claims to infringement of religious beliefs.

MCPS said "many" requests were not religious – again without providing a number or range – and that some parents just opposed their children learning about sex, "LGBTQ issues" or "instructional materials that were not age-appropriate."

Associate Superintendent Niki Hazel, who oversees curriculum and instructional programs, provided more detail in her declaration. Honoring opt-outs could cause "high student absenteeism," given that parents in just one elementary school "sought to excuse dozens of students, she said.

Teachers would have to "track and accommodate" requests, but media specialists and others "who spend time in multiple classrooms each day" would also face burdens in ensuring "they were abiding by the accommodations granted to every student they encountered across an entire school," according to Hazel.

The district could violate Maryland and federal nondiscrimination laws if it allowed some students to "leave the classroom whenever language arts lessons draw on books featuring LGBTQ characters," Hazel claimed, because this would expose "students who believe that the books represent them or their families … to social stigma and isolation."

Perhaps fearful of similar headaches prompted by exposing children to adult themes, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center canceled its Asian American Literature Festival with a month's notice July 5, The Washington Post reported.

The festival touts its track record of "engaging queer/trans/nonbinary communities of color, including youth leadership pipelines," and programming includes "campfire-style queer ghost stories." 

Citing internal Smithsonian emails about "the current political climate," the Post reported the festival underwent a Smithsonian Directive 603 review to "identify potentially sensitive issues" that could prompt "public debate or questions from the public, news media, Congress and the Administration," but it's not clear the review was relevant to the cancelation.

A Smithsonian spokesperson told the Post it canceled the festival because organizers were a month behind deadlines and hadn't presented a "full packet of confirmed materials." 

That explanation was challenged in an open letter by "partners and co-organizers" who feared "the Smithsonian’s desire to censor trans and nonbinary programming" could have been "the driving factor."

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