Mahmoud v. McKnight

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. 

After filing the lawsuit on May 24, 2023, the district court ruled against the parents. They appealed the decision to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, and on May 15, 2024, the appellate court ruled to keep the school board’s no-notice, no-opt-out policy. 

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. 

Trump v. International Refugee Assistance Project

In March 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning entry for ninety days by citizens from six majority Muslim countries, raising serious religious freedom concerns. Plaintiffs brought lawsuits against the executive order, and the lawsuits have traveled all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Becket has a long track record of defending people of all faiths, including Muslims. In 2015, Becket won the historic Supreme Court victory in Holt v. Hobbs, which protected the religious freedom rights of Muslim prisoners. We believe that to protect people of faith, particularly religious minorities like Muslims, Native Americans, and Sikhs, it is vital that legal precedent is set properly. But the ACLU and other groups in Trump v. International Refugee Assistance Project have litigated their case under the wrong part of the Constitution. They are challenging the travel ban using the notorious Lemon test – a widely discredited set of criteria that creates confusion – and weak law— for important religious freedom cases. The Lemon test is particularly disliked by the Supreme Court because it forces judges to psychoanalyze the intent of policymakers at the time they wrote the law.

Instead, when the government targets a religious group for punishment or mistreatment, courts should use the laws that are designed to deal with burdens on religious exercise, namely the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Unlike Lemon, these laws have objective tests designed to root out religious targeting and protect religious minorities.

It is only possible to get cases like this right if courts are using the correct legal standards. Deciding religious freedom cases using the correct laws is the best way to achieve a truly just outcome both for the Muslim plaintiffs and for all Americans who have First Amendment protections. 

In June 2017 the Supreme Court announced that it would hear Trump v. IRAP and Trump v. Hawaii as a consolidated case. After oral argument was scheduled for October 10, 2017, the executive order expired and the Court dismissed both cases as moot, vacating the lower courts’ decisions including any Lemon test analysis.

Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, Inc. v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore

An honest commitment to care for women 

The Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, which operates on Catholic Church-owned property, helps more than 1,200 women each year. The Center provides women with basic services like pregnancy tests, baby and maternity clothes, parenting books, diapers, bottles and formula, and sonograms—all free of charge. The Center also counsels more than 8,000 local women per year through its 24-hour helpline.

The Center’s staff and volunteers are motivated by their faith to help women and children during a vulnerable time in their lives. Displayed in each waiting room is a “Commitment of Care,” a document that explains the Center’s promises of nondiscrimination, honesty, and confidentiality, and also states that the Center “does not offer, recommend, or refer for abortion or birth control, but we are committed to offering accurate information about abortion procedures and risks.”

The government’s discriminatory double standard

In 2009, the City of Baltimore targeted the Center, demanding they display government signs about the services they do not offer. The city mandated that the Center display signs on the walls of their church-owned property stating that they “do not provide or make referrals for abortion or birth control services.” Yet, the only centers targeted by this discriminatory law were pro-life centers. The city of Baltimore did not require abortion clinics to display signs about services they do not offer, such as adoption or prenatal care.

The city claimed that the government-mandated abortion message did not alter the Center’s speech, because the Commitment of Care already notified women that the Center did not offer referrals for abortion. But this reasoning completely missed a crucial part of the First Amendment promise of free speech: that people, not the government, know best what they want to say and how they want to say it.

Defending free speech for all

In March 2010, the Center sued the mayor and city counsel of Baltimore in district court for the right to continue to serve and communicate with women who come to them for help, in a way that respects each woman’s choice and circumstances as well as the Center’s mission. The Center already accurately informs women about the help they provide in a way that is in line with their mission; that should be enough.

In January 2011, the Center won. But the government wouldn’t take no for an answer. On appeal at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, the city again lost in January 2018. In its opinion, the Fourth Circuit explained that the city’s law essentially forced the Center to portray “abortion as one among a menu of morally equivalent choices”—a message “antithetical to the very moral, religious, and ideological reasons the Center exists.” The law therefore violated the First Amendment.

In March 2018, the city made a final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 21, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the city’s appeal, definitively protecting the Center’s free speech rights.

The Center was represented by Becket, by David Kinkopf and Steve Metzger from Gallagher, Evelius, and Jones LLP, and by Peter Basile from Ferguson, Schetelich & Ballew, P.A.

Importance to Religious Liberty

  • Free speech: The government cannot control the way an individual or organization speaks about its own beliefs. People, not the government, know best what they want to say and how they want to say it.

Bethel World Outreach Ministries v. Montgomery County

Bethel World Outreach Church is a Christian church located in Silver Spring, Maryland. It is made up of people from more than 45 nations and cultures, and it has grown so much that it has been forced to turn people away from services in its current facilities. Eight years ago, Bethel bought land in Montgomery County, Maryland, with plans to build a church home large enough to accommodate its growing congregation.

But Montgomery County had other plans.  Although churches were permitted on Bethel’s land, the county held up what should have been a routine water and sewer hookup application, then passed a new law that made it impossible for Bethel to get those permits.  So Bethel did what the county wanted, and submitted a new application for a smaller church that would comply with the new water regulations.  What did the county do?  Again, it held up the church’s application, and again, it passed a new law that made it impossible for Bethel to build a church on its own land.

Represented by Storzer & Greene, PLLC, Bethel sued the county for violations of the state and federal constitutions, and violations of RLUIPA.  A lower court sided with the county, so the church appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. Becket submitted a brief in support of Bethel, joined by several other churches and ministries who wish to see churches treated fairly.  Becket’s brief highlighted the special problems faced by new and minority-dominated churches, problems that RLUIPA was designed to fix. The Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of the church, setting a strong precedent in favor of religious freedom for houses of worship.


Conaway v. Deane

Nine same-sex couples in Maryland sued when they were denied marriage licenses, due to a Maryland law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.  Becket filed an amicus brief addressing the impact that a wholesale change to the laws defining marriage would have on religious liberty.  Maryland’s highest court—the Court of Appeals—ruled that the marriage law was constitutional, and the definition of marriage in Maryland remained unchanged. Maryland’s Office of the Attorney General defended the law.

Gallart v. City of Frederick and Frederick Presbyterian Church

In 1998, members of a Frederick, Maryland church decided to build an addition to their church building. A new 180-square-foot lobby area would provide handicapped access to the church, an elevator, improved bathrooms and a wider stairwell. When the church’s attorney met with the city zoning administrator to determine what approvals were needed, he was told that the church did not conform to current zoning requirements mandating that on-site parking be provided. Although the existing church was grandfathered from the regulation, the construction of an addition would trigger the parking requirement. Because it was physically impossible, due to size constraints, to build a parking lot meeting the city’s zoning requirements on the church’s property (the church was built in 1825, well before invention of the automobile), Dean was told that the church would need a variance for the existing sanctuary if they wished to proceed with construction of the addition.

Multiple hearings were conducted followed by a rejection of the variance application.

A few months later, in the fall of 2000, the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was signed into law, and the church asked the office of the City Attorney for an opinion on how the new law would affect Frederick Presbyterian ‘s ongoing effort to win approval of the new addition.

On January 30, 2001 Becket wrote a letter to the city attorney, noting that Frederick’s “zoning regulations place a substantial burden on the church’s use of the property for religious exercise,” and that “imposing the parking requirements on the church would violate RLUIPA.” The city agreed, and the Zoning Administrator and Historic District Commission unanimously approved the addition.

In the meantime, a disgruntled neighbor appealed the city’s decision. Becket stepped in to defend the church in court.

*Image Credit: Fredrick Presbyterian Church