Federal Court: Parents in Maryland School District Cannot Opt K-5 Children Out of LGBTQ Curriculum

A federal court upheld a Maryland school district policy on Wednesday that prevents parents from opting their young K-5 children out of curriculum involving gender identity and sexuality.

In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld a lower court’s ruling, rejecting the plea from religious parents to halt the policy set by the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) board in March 2023. The majority opinion, authored by Judge G. Steven Agee, a George W. Bush appointee, concluded that the parents failed to present adequate evidence demonstrating that the policy infringes on their religious freedoms and their due process right to oversee their children’s education.

“We take no view on whether the Parents will be able to present evidence sufficient to support any of their various theories once they have the opportunity to develop a record as to the circumstances surrounding the Board’s decision and how the challenged texts are actually being used in schools,” Agee wrote. “At this early stage, however, given the Parents’ broad claims, the very high burden required to obtain a preliminary injunction, and the scant record before us, we are constrained to affirm the district court’s order denying a preliminary injunction.”

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty represented the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian parents who united to contend that the school district’s policy, which mandates participation in LGBTQQIAAP2S+-themed curriculum, infringes upon their rights to raise their children in line with their religious beliefs, especially concerning identity and sexuality. They sought permission to exempt their young children from these educational materials.

The parents also contended that the material is not age-appropriate for such young students. Book titles integrated into the K-5 curriculum include “The Pride Puppy,” “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding,” and “Born Ready: The True Story of a Boy Named Penelope.” The book “The Pride Puppy,” specifically approved for pre-Kindergarten and Head Start classrooms, invited the three and four-year-old audience to look for items such as “[drag] king,” “leather,” “lip ring,” “[drag] queen,” and “underwear,” as noted in the judge’s opinion. The parents also pointed out that the district provided guidance to teachers and staff on how to address concerns about the pro-LGBTQ+ content and questions from students.

The order details that the guidance also advises teachers to disrupt binary thinking. For example, if a student comments that “a girl can only like boys because she’s a girl,” the teacher might respond with, “actually, people of any gender can like whoever they like. How do you think it would make (character’s name) feel to hear you say that? Do you think it’s fair for people to decide for us who we can and can’t like?”

Despite these points, the panel ruled that simply hearing other perspectives does not necessarily force individuals to alter their beliefs or actions contrary to their religious faith.

In his dissenting opinion, Judge A. Marvin Quattlebaum, Jr., appointed by former President Donald Trump, stated he would have reversed the lower court’s decision and blocked the school district’s policy. He argued that the board’s decision to deny religious opt-outs significantly burdened the parents’ right to exercise their religion and direct their children’s upbringing. This decision, he noted, forces parents to choose between compromising their religious beliefs or foregoing a public education for their children. He also found the board’s actions, as presented in the current record, were neither neutral nor generally applicable. Therefore, he believed the parents had met the requirements for a preliminary injunction and would have enjoined the Montgomery County School Board from denying religious opt-outs for K-5 instruction involving these texts.

Quattlebaum added that he disagreed with the majority’s view that the parents had not provided sufficient evidence to show that their religious exercise rights were burdened. He argued that the parents had met their burden by producing the books intended for K-5 instruction, offering detailed declarations on how these books conflict with their religious beliefs, and presenting the board’s internal documents on responding to students and parents questioning the content.

“These parents’ faiths dictate that they, not others, should teach their children about sex, human sexuality, gender, and family life,” Quattlebaum wrote. “Their beliefs require them to protect their children from teachings that contradict and undermine their religious views on these subjects. The board’s refusal to allow religious opt-outs effectively prevents the parents from practicing these aspects of their faith if they want their children to receive a public education.”

Eric Baxter, a senior counsel and vice president at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, expressed the parents’ disappointment with the court’s decision to Fox 5 DC. He emphasized that the parents are not seeking the removal of the books from schools; rather, they want the option to exempt their young children from participating.

“We understand that there are different perspectives among parents,” Baxter said. “However, all parents should have the right to decide if something is inappropriate for their own child and to remove their child from the classroom under such circumstances. I believe this is a position that all residents of Montgomery County can support.” Baxter mentioned that they plan to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

The case is Mahmoud v. McKnight, No. 23-1890 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.