Hundreds of parents and education campaigners in Maryland took part in a protest this week against a sudden change in the curriculum that eliminated the option for parents to opt their children out of sexual and gender identity lessons based on religious beliefs.
In March, the school system revised its parental notification policy, no longer informing parents in advance about the books being read in class and prohibiting opting out of lessons.
On June 6th, a demonstration organised by Family Rights for Religious Freedom (FRRF) was held outside the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) headquarters in Rockville, Maryland. Over 400 people participated in the protest, urging the reinstatement of the opt-out option.
Parents and organisers in Montgomery County emphasised that their goal is to bring back the opt-out option, not to have the books themselves removed.
Wael Elkoshairi, an organiser with FRRF, stated, “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. 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 allows students and families to opt out of engaging with instructional materials related to family life and human sexuality. However, in March, a public school district ended that policy, leading to outrage among some parents.
In the fall of 2022, the Montgomery County Public Schools system announced its plans to modify the curriculum for the following school semester, introducing a new list of books on sexual and gender identity for students from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade.
According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), schools had provided families with advanced notice of the planned discussions and the option to opt their children out based on their religious beliefs, which many families did. Parents argued that topics of sexual orientation and gender identity were being introduced too early.
MCPS responded by stating that Maryland law only allows opting out of sexual education lessons, and the books in question did not fall under that category.
In response, parents and students have been voicing their concerns in education hearings, and Elkoshairi mentioned that they will continue to do so.
Elkoshairi emphasised, “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.”
Momina, a parent with two daughters in the MCPS school system, expressed her opposition to her children being exposed to sexual and gender identity books. She stated, “They are too young. I don’t want my daughters reading and discussing about straight or gay identity. 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.”
Parents’ concerns regarding sexually explicit content in schools have been a longstanding issue. In October, a Dearborn school district temporarily restricted access to seven books after parents raised concerns about sexually explicit content. However, parents reported that the media narrative had shifted, turning it into an issue involving the LGBTQ community.
In May, three families filed a lawsuit against the MCPS board and superintendent, arguing that the lack of an opt-out option violated their First Amendment rights. The complaint from the suing families does not seek the removal of the books, as reported by the Washington Post.
Zainab Chaudry, the director of CAIR-Maryland, stated, “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.”
After the protests, Maryland Democrat Kristin Mink of the Montgomery County Council made controversial remarks, suggesting that Muslim families wereimg-align-ed with white supremacists. This led to a demand from CAIR for a public apology, accusing Mink of unfairly singling out Muslim families and making disparaging remarks.
Elkoshairi described Mink’s words as careless, obnoxious, and insensitive, while CAIR called for an apology, stating that any attempt to silence or smear families exercising their rights is disingenuous and harmful.