- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 15, 2024

A federal appeals court has ruled that parents in Montgomery County can’t remove their elementary school-age children from classes that include books on human sexuality and gender.

The parents — Muslim, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish — had asked the court to uphold their religious free-exercise rights to opt their children out of classes where the books were being used.

Montgomery County Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, unveiled the “inclusivity” reading program in the fall of 2022 for students from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. 

One of the books to which the parents objected, “Pride Puppy,” tells three- and four-year-old students to find images from a vocabulary list including “‘intersex flag,’ ‘drag queen,’ ‘underwear,’ ‘leather,’ and the name of a celebrated LGBTQ activist and sex worker.”

Another volume, “Born Ready: The True Story of a Boy Named Penelope,” promoted what attorneys representing the parents said was a “child-knows-best” view of gender transitioning. They claimed teachers were “instructed to say doctors only ‘guess’ when identifying a newborn [child’s]” gender.

Initially, MCPS allowed parents to remove their children from the discussions. But the district, with the backing of the county’s board of education, reversed its policy for the 2023-2024 school year, and would no longer notify parents in advance about readings from the disputed texts.

Two members of a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond said Wednesday the parents hadn’t made their case for a preliminary injunction against the county’s school district, and couldn’t show that their fears about classroom instruction had been realized.

“We understand the Parents’ contention that the Storybooks could be used in ways that would confuse or mislead children and, in particular, that discussions relating to their contents could be used to indoctrinate their children into espousing views that are contrary to their religious faith,” Judge G. Steven Agee, named to the bench by President George W. Bush, wrote for the majority. “But none of that is verified by the limited record that is before us.”

Judge DeAndrea Benjamin, a Biden appointee, joined Judge Agee in refusing the parents’ request.

Throughout the majority opinion, Judge Agee emphasized that there was no “developed record” of how the storybooks were actually being used in a class. That a book is present in a given classroom is not enough to demonstrate an imposition on religious free exercise, he said.

“Proof that [classroom] discussions are pressuring students to recast their own religious views — as opposed to merely being exposed to the differing viewpoints of others — could serve as evidence that the Storybooks [c.q.] are being used in a coercive manner,” Judge Agee added.

Dissenting Judge A. Marvin Quattelbaum Jr. took issue with MCPS’ reversal on allowing parents to remove their pre-K to fifth-grade students from such discussions.

“The board granted religious opt-outs for the texts during the 2022/2023 school year, when it advanced the same interest of making its schools safe and inclusive for those in the LGBTQ+ community, “ wrote Judge Quattelbaum, a Trump appointee. “And still today, the board permits opt-outs for family life and human sexuality instruction. How can barring religious opt-outs be narrowly tailored to the board’s stated interests when it has permitted less restrictive measures in the past and currently?”

Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the parents, said an appeal would follow the 4th Circuit decision.

“The court just told thousands of Maryland parents they have no say in what their children are taught in public schools,” Mr. Baxter said in a statement. “That runs contrary to the First Amendment, Maryland law, the school board’s own policies, and basic human decency.

Parents should have the right to receive notice and opt their children out of classroom material that violates their faith.”

The Washington Times has contacted Montgomery County Public Schools for comment.

• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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