Lawyers for Montgomery County parents argued in court Wednesday morning in defense of the freedom to opt children out of coursework that promotes acceptance of homosexuality and transgenderism. Outside the courthouse more than 50 parents gathered for a rally in support of parents’ and students’ religious rights.

Represented by Becket, a law firm specializing in religious rights cases, a coalition of primarily Muslim, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christian parents are fighting back against the Montgomery County Board of Education for mandating instruction of materials that the parents say conflict with their faith.

Maryland law requires that school districts allow parents to opt out of coursework that deals with “family life and human sexuality.” However, the school district decided in March that it does not consider reading materials that discuss subjects related to homosexuality, transgenderism, and other aspects of gender ideology to be a part of “family life and human sexuality instruction.”

On May 1, the school district stopped notifying parents of such reading materials in the coursework and refused to allow them to opt out.

“Parents are the first teachers,” William Haun, senior counsel at Becket, told CNA. “The point of this lawsuit is to restore the ability to give parents notice and opt out.”

“The school board just took it away without any public explanation,” Haun continued. “The First Amendment protects against arbitrary power, and it protects the right of parents to direct their children’s religious upbringing.”

Parents rally outside courthouse

While oral arguments were being heard inside the Montgomery County federal courthouse, the diverse group of parents rallied for their First Amendment rights.

Grace Morrison, whose 10-year-old foster child has Down syndrome and attends a Montgomery County public school, spoke at the rally about how her child has been exposed to pro-homosexual and transgender materials and is now struggling to understand how her foster parents and teachers can disagree so fundamentally.

“Because of her learning challenges,” Haun explained, “her parents aren’t able to tell her: ‘Your teacher is misunderstanding our religious beliefs’ or ‘This is what we believe as a family.’”

“They can’t have those meaningful conversations with her,” he said. “All their child knows is that her teacher is telling her one thing and her parents are telling her something else. And that kind of disagreement for a child with Down syndrome is disorienting, to put it mildly.”

“Because only Montgomery County Public Schools have the resources to educate this child, this is that family’s [only] option; they have to endure this,” Haun explained. “They have to encounter this. So, this poses a real burden and pressures them to modify their religious beliefs or no longer participate in public education, which would sacrifice their child’s education.”

Parental rights and religious freedom at stake

Lawyers for Becket argued that the policy infringes upon parental rights and religious freedom that are guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, Maryland law, and even the board’s own policies. The lawyers are asking the court to halt the policy and restore the opt-out before children go back to school on Aug. 28.

“Our society depends on people being able to disagree civilly,” Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, told CNA after finishing the three-hour hearing with the court.

Baxter said if the school district is trying to promote inclusivity, “you don’t do that by pushing ideological conformity” on parents and students. He said if students are told their religious beliefs are hurtful, they will “feel like the system doesn’t protect them” and encouraged the school district to “simply respect the diversity of opinion that exists on these issues.”

He said many of the questions from the judge related to “whether the parents’ religious beliefs were really burdened” and noted that courts have ruled in favor of a parents’ religious rights in less egregious burdens than this.

Objectionable coursework

The coursework that the parents found objectionable includes reading material geared toward students as young as 3 or 4 years old.

This includes a book called “Pride Puppy!”, which introduces preschoolers and kindergarteners to words like “drag queen,” “leather,” and “zipper” and discusses Marsha B. Johnson, who was a drag queen, a gay rights activist, and temporarily a prostitute. The story follows a young child who is searching for a lost dog at a pride parade and seeks to teach children the alphabet through homosexual and transgender themes.

Baxter said religious parents are seeking to opt their children out of instruction related to this book because it is “introducing children to things that are much more of an adult nature.”

He referenced another book for young children that discusses a child who wants to change genders and includes comments about a mother scolding the child’s brother for not acknowledging the transition, saying: “Doctors only guess what your sex is when you’re born.”

Another book Baxter referenced discusses “falling in love with another child on the playground.” He said the coursework also includes literature at the second-grade level discussing “issues concerning sexuality.”

Baxter argued that the parents he represents do not want their young children engaging in coursework that is “talking about intimate things such as romance on the playgrounds, questioning their pronouns, [and] what it means to be cisgender or transgender.” He said the promotion of these topics is “contrary to [their] religious beliefs” and “causes them to question the religious instruction they’re getting at home.”

CNA reached out to the school district for comment but did not receive a statement by the time of publication.

Immigrant parents rally to cause

Dozens of parents from various religious faiths rallied outside the courthouse to support the effort to reinstate the opt-out for parents.

“Immigrants with diverse faith backgrounds and diverse heritages came to the rally, asking for the very thing that many of them came to the United States for — religious freedom,” a spokesperson for Moms for Liberty of Montgomery County, which was involved in the rally, told CNA.

“This is what our Constitution offers,” the spokesperson said. “In a pluralistic society, we need to love and respect all others, but we don’t have to share their morality. [The lawyers’ request] would temporarily restore the right of parents to opt out of LGBTQIA+ curriculum that directly undermines their faith tradition. We are hoping today that our voices will finally be heard.”

Parental rights groups have been regularly engaging with the school board and holding rallies in support of restoring the opt-out.