A Maryland federal judge denied Thursday a parents’ request to have their children “opt-out’ of education on LGBTQ+ history and topics. In Mahmoud v. McKnight, three families parenting elementary-aged children in Maryland, objected on religious grounds to the use of storybooks featuring LGBTQ+ characters in the Montgomery County Public School (MCPS) system. The court rejected the parents’ request, stating, “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 lawsuit began when the school board announced in 2023 that parents would no longer receive the option to opt their children out of instruction on certain LGBTQ+ storybooks in the MCPS system. Originally, when the curriculum was adopted in October 2022, parents received notice of the use of these books, and could opt their children out of instruction involving the books. The MCPS school board also enacted religious diversity guidelines that suggested that schools adjust their instruction or accommodate requests from students who wish to be excused from classroom discussions which would “impose a substantial burden on their religious beliefs.” The same guidelines stated, “[I]f such requests become too frequent or too burdensome, the school may refuse to accommodate the requests.”
The school board eliminated the opt-out policy because principals and teachers “could not accommodate the growing number of opt-out requests without causing significant disruptions” to the educational environment. The decision to end opt-outs provoked contentious school board meetings on January 12, March 28, and May 25. The books at issue included Pride Puppy!, Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, My Rainbow, and Born Ready: The True Story of a Boy Named Penelope.
Three families sued MCPS and related parties claiming the new policy violated their children’s free exercise and free speech rights under the US Constitution’s First Amendment. Parents also claimed it violated their substantive due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. Central to the parents’ religious objections was the storybooks’ teachings about transgender individuals. In their lawsuit, parents asked the court for a preliminary injunction, which would require the school board to give them advance notice of the use of the materials, as well as the ability to opt their children out of instruction using those materials.
On Thursday, US District Judge Deborah Boardman dismissed the parents’ First and Fourteenth Amendment claims.
She dismissed the First Amendment claims on the grounds that MCPS’s reversal of the opt-out policy did not burden the religious exercise of students or parents because “mere exposure in public school to ideas that contradict religious beliefs does not burden the religious exercise of students or parents.” The court found that all but one of the parents had failed to show the no-opt-out policy would likely result in the indoctrination of their children.
Boardman also found the Fourteenth Amendment claims were unlikely to succeed since she found that the MCPS system had a “legitimate interest in fostering social integration and cultural inclusiveness of transgender and gender nonconforming students.”
The parents also brought claims under Maryland law. They contended that Maryland state law requires the MCPS system to provide opt-out for storybooks “concerning family life and human sexuality.” Parents claimed that the MCPS system had an obligation to provide parents and guardians with an opportunity “to view instructional materials to be used in the teaching of family life and human sexuality objectives.” The MCPS system contended that the Maryland law applied only to their curriculum on sexuality, whereas the books complained about were taught in the literary curriculum.
Thursday’s decision did not address the Maryland state law claims, but rather relied upon the parents’ US Constitution claims in rejected their request for a preliminary injunction.