Parents’ request to exclude children from reading assignments that include LGBTQ content is denied by the court

A group of Maryland parents had their bid to allow them to opt their children out of lessons involving LGBTQ-inclusive material rejected by a federal appeals court.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a split decision by a three-judge panel, upheld a lower court ruling that denied a preliminary injunction. The court concluded that the parents had not yet provided sufficient evidence to show how the board of education’s book policy would violate their right to freely express their religious beliefs.

Three sets of parents, representing different religious backgrounds – Muslim, Jewish, and Christian – along with a parental rights organization, have filed a lawsuit against the Maryland school district. The lawsuit was prompted by the district’s decision to disallow parents from opting their children out of lessons that incorporated a selection of recently approved LGBTQ-inclusive books.

The parents claimed that the books go against their deeply held religious convictions regarding marriage, human sexuality, and gender. They argued that the absence of an opt-out policy infringes upon their children’s constitutional right to freely practice their religion.

In the majority opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge G. Steven Agee stated that there was insufficient evidence available to evaluate how the books were being utilized in the classroom. As a result, it was also challenging to determine the likelihood of the case being successful.

“We do not have a stance on whether the Parents will be able to provide enough evidence to support any of their different theories once they have the chance to gather information about the Board’s decision and how the controversial texts are actually being used in schools,” stated Agee, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush.

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The opinion, written by U.S. Circuit Judge Charles Johnson, along with U.S. Circuit Judge DeAndrea Benjamin, an appointee of President Biden’s, affirms the district court’s order denying a preliminary injunction. At this early stage, with the Parents’ broad claims, the high burden required for a preliminary injunction, and the limited record before us, we are constrained to uphold the district court’s decision.

U.S. Circuit Judge A. Marvin Quattlebaum, Jr., who was appointed by former President Trump, expressed dissent, contending that the board had infringed upon the parents’ right to shape their children’s religious upbringing.

In an emailed statement to The Hill, Eric Baxter, the vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing the parents, expressed his commitment to appealing the ruling on Wednesday.

In a statement, Baxter expressed his frustration with the court’s ruling, stating, “The court has essentially taken away the voice of thousands of Maryland parents when it comes to what their children are taught in public schools. This decision goes against not only the First Amendment and Maryland law, but also contradicts the School Board’s own policies and fundamental principles of human decency.”

“We will appeal this ruling,” he added, emphasizing that parents should be granted the right to receive notice and opt their children out of classroom material that goes against their religious beliefs.

In August 2023, U.S. District Judge Deborah Boardman ruled that the parents were unlikely to succeed in their case and denied their request to maintain the policy while the case is ongoing. She determined that they did not provide sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the absence of an opt-out policy would lead to the “indoctrination of their children” or force them to compromise their religious beliefs.

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In the order last year, Boardman emphasized that parents are still entitled to instruct their children about their religious beliefs concerning sexuality, marriage, and gender, and each family can present contrasting views within their religious framework.

She added that the parents are not restricted by any government action when it comes to freely discussing the topics raised in the storybooks with their children or teaching their children as they wish.

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