Mahmoud v. McKnight
Parents in Maryland are fighting back against the Montgomery County Board of Education for forcing pre-K and elementary-aged children to read controversial books that promote a one-sided transgender ideology, encourage gender transitioning, and focus excessively on romance—with no parental notification or opportunity to opt out. Parents from a variety of faiths— including Islam, Catholicism, and Orthodox Christianity—are united in seeking to guarantee their children an age-appropriate education that is consistent with their faith and sound science. These parents are simply asking to be notified when the books will be read to their children and to be given an opportunity to opt out. By denying these longstanding arrangements, the Board is violating the parents’ inalienable and constitutionally protected right to control the religious upbringing of their children, especially on sensitive issues concerning family life and human sexuality.
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Montgomery County’s Pride Storybooks
In fall 2022, the Montgomery County Board of Education announced over 20 new “inclusivity” books for its pre-K through eighth grade classrooms. But rather than focusing on basic civility and kindness, these books champion pride parades, gender transitioning, and pronoun preferences for children. For example, one book tasks three- and four-year-olds to search for images from a word list that includes “intersex flag,” “[drag] queen,” “underwear,” “leather,” and the name of a celebrated LGBTQ activist and sex worker. Another encourages fifth graders to discuss what it means to be “non-binary.” Other books advocate a child-knows-best approach to gender transitioning, telling students that a decision to transition doesn’t have to “make sense” and that doctors only “guess” when identifying a newborn’s sex anyway. The teacher’s guide to another book about a playground same-sex romance invites schoolkids to share with classmates how they feel when they “don’t just ‘like’ but … ‘like like’” someone. The curriculum suppresses free speech and independent thinking by having teachers tell students they are “hurtful” if they question these controversial ideologies.
When the Board first went public with its Pride Storybooks, it assured hundreds of concerned parents they would be notified when the books were read and could opt their children out. This meant parents troubled by the books’ blatant disregard for widely held religious beliefs and scientific perspectives would be respected. Upholding parental rights also meant that children would not be subjected to age-inappropriate instruction against their parents’ wishes. Indeed, in Maryland—as in most states across America—teaching family life and human sexuality requires parental notification and the ability to opt-out. Historically, the Board has respected that law, allowing parents to opt their children out of sex ed classes and controversial readings on related topics. The Board’s own “Guidelines” regarding religious diversity go even further. They guarantee that parents may seek opt-outs and alternative assignments for their children on a wide range of potential classroom activities, discussions, and reading assignments.
“Inclusion” as exclusion of parents
Everything changed in March 2023, when the School Board issued a statement saying it would no longer notify parents or honor requests to opt-out. Immediately, parents of the more than 70,000 elementary schoolkids in Montgomery County were denied their right to decide when their elementary-aged children would be exposed to books promoting transgender and queer ideology. One Board member justified the decision by claiming that allowing opt-outs because these books “offend your religious rights or your family values or your core beliefs is just telling [your] kid, ‘Here’s another reason to hate another person.’”
Soon after, a diverse coalition of religious parents including Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, and others began to fight back. While coming from different faith backgrounds, these parents all believe the books are age-inappropriate, harmful to children, and portray notions of sex and gender that conflict with their religious beliefs and sound science. Though they have many different beliefs, these parents are united in protecting their right to direct their children’s religious and intellectual education on such sensitive matters regarding family life and human sexuality.
The law protects parents’ right to guide their children’s education
The Board cannot refuse parents who want to opt their children out of instruction that violates their religious beliefs on sensitive matters. The Board is unlawfully coming between parents and their kids and targeting them because of their religious beliefs about gender and sexuality. That violates the Board’s own policies, Maryland law, and the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court has held that children are not wards of the state, and that parents have the right to make key decisions about the education of their children on such critical matters concerning family life and human sexuality.
The district court heard oral argument on August 9, 2023. Soon after, the court ruled against the parents and left the mandate in place. On August 28, the parents appealed the decision to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Importance to Religious Liberty:
Parental Rights: Parents have the right to direct the religious upbringing of their children. Teachings around family life and human sexuality lie at the heart of most religions. Becket defends the right of parents to opt their children out of one-sided indoctrination on such matters when it conflicts with their religious beliefs and sound principles of science.