US: Muslim parents protest losing right to opt out of LGBTQ school books
Hundreds of parents and education campaigners in Maryland protested this week over an abrupt change to the curriculum that meant they could no longer opt their children out of sexual and gender identity lessons based on religious beliefs.
In March, the school system revised its parental notification policy, which meant that parents were no longer informed in advance of the books being read in class. And opting out of lessons was not allowed anymore.
In a demonstration organised by Family Rights for Religious Freedom (FRRF) on 6 June, over 400 people protested outside the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) headquarters in Rockville, Maryland, to bring back the opt-out option.
In Montgomery County, parents and organisers told Middle East Eye that they want the school system to bring back the opt-out option and they are not trying to get the books themselves removed.
“We have rights under the First Amendment. This was an opt-out that was already in place. It was already afforded to us. It was already there. We were already opting out,” Wael Elkoshairi, an organiser with FRRF, told MEE.
“We are not anti-LGBT. You know, this is not a monolithic society we live in. We understand people have different lifestyles and we respect everybody's right to live those lifestyles.”
A Maryland law permits students and families to opt out of engaging with any instructional materials in schools related to family life and human sexuality. But in March, a public school district ended that policy in its schools, leaving some parents outraged.
In the fall of 2022, the Montgomery County Public Schools system revealed its plans to alter the curriculum the following school semester. The new curriculum was to include a new list of books to read from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade which were on sexual and gender identity.
According to the Council on American–Islamic Relations (Cair), schools gave families advanced notice of the planned discussions and the option to opt their children out of those discussions based on their held religious beliefs, which many families did. Parents argued that topics of sexual orientation and gender identity were being introduced too early.
According to MCPS, Maryland law only allows opting out for sexual education lessons, and these books were not on that topic.
In response, parents and students have been speaking in education hearings about their concerns and will continue to do so, Elkoshairi said.
"What we are saying is when it comes to sexual education and things that we feel relate to sexual education and family life, according to Maryland law, we have the option to opt-out,” said Elkoshairi.
Momina, a parent with two daughters in the MCPS school system, told MEE that she does not want them to be introduced to sexual and gender identity books.
"They are too young. I don't want my daughters reading and discussing about straight or gay identity," she said. "I am not saying that these discussions shouldn't be allowed in schools. If people want them, then fine. I am saying that we should have the option to have our kids opt out if we please.
"Sex does not belong in schools," she said.
Likening Muslims to white supremacists
Parents’ concerns over sexually explicit content in schools have long been an issue.
In October, chaos erupted after a Dearborn school district temporarily restricted access to seven books after parents raised concerns that the books contained sexually explicit content. Parents then told MEE that the narrative from the media has since changed, with them turning it into an issue with the greater LGBTQ community.
In May, three families sued the MCPS board and superintendent over the updated curriculum and argued that the lack of an opt-out option violated their First Amendment rights.
'Any attempt to silence or smear families... is deeply disingenuous and harmful'
- Zainab Chaudry, Cair
The complaint from the families suing the school district doesn’t request the removal of the books, the Washington Post reported.
“The Montgomery County Muslim parents have been clearly and consistently asking MCPS for only one thing: respect the rights and sincerely held beliefs of parents and children by restoring the opt-out option that worked well throughout the fall semester,” Zainab Chaudry, the director of Cair-Maryland told MEE.
Following the protests, Maryland Democrat Kristin Mink of Montgomery County Council said Muslim families were on the "side of white supremacists".
"This issue, unfortunately, does put… some Muslim families on the same side of an issue as white supremacists and outright bigots," Mink said. "I would not put you in the same category as those folks, although, you know, it's complicated because they're falling on the same side of this particular issue."
Mink added that this is not an infringement on religious freedoms, “just as we cannot allow folks to opt out of teachings about evolution".
Elkoshairi said the words were careless, obnoxious, and insensitive.
Cair called on Mink to publicly apologise for “wrongly singling” out Muslim families and making “unfair characterisations and disparaging remarks” about their concerns.
“Any attempt to silence or smear families who are simply asking for their rights as taxpayers and residents in the county is deeply disingenuous and harmful.”