This article was updated at 7:16 p.m. to better clarify the number of protest attendees.
A large group of Muslim and Christian protesters gathered outside Montgomery County Public School headquarters in Rockville on Tuesday morning carrying banners stating “religious freedom” as they chanted, “Protect our children!”
On the other side of the street, a smaller group of counter-protesters waved rainbow flags and danced to Lady Gaga songs playing over a boombox as they chanted back, “Protect all children!”
A MoCo360 reporter counted at least 60 pro-opt-out protesters outside the building around 10:30 a.m. and at least two dozen counter-protesters. Witnesses say there may have been many more attendees throughout the morning.
The gatherings stem from a policy revision MCPS announced on March 24 regarding its use of LGBTQ+ inclusive storybooks in school. According to the newly clarified guidelines, schools will not give prior notice to parents when inclusive texts are read, and families will not be allowed to opt students out.
Three families recently filed a federal lawsuit against school officials demanding reinstatement of the opt-out option, alleging violation of their First Amendment rights. MCPS has consistently declined to comment on the suit, with spokespeople saying they cannot comment on pending litigation.
Protesters supporting the opt-out included representatives from national right-wing group Moms for Liberty, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated an extremist group with a documented history of attacking the LGBTQ+ community. Counter-protesters included County Councilmember Kristin Mink (D-Dist. 5), former school board member Jill Ortman-Fouse and Montgomery County Council of PTAs leader Laura Stewart.
Indoctrination or empathy
Wael Elkoshairi attended Tuesday’s protest as a leader of Family Rights for Religious Freedom, a recently-formed grassroots group of parents and residents pushing for MCPS to reinstate the opt-out. Elkoshairi said as the father of MCPS students, he didn’t oppose the LGBTQ+ books when they were first introduced in January 2023, because he could have his students removed from the classroom when the books were read.
“We respect these people. It’s not us versus the LGBT,” he said. “But elementary students don’t have the requisite amount of emotional intelligence to handle these discussions. This is the time to teach algebra.”
Fellow MCPS parent Karen Silva echoed Elkoshairi’s sentiment, telling MoCo360, “If I don’t believe in it, I should be able to pull my kids out. […] I don’t hate the gays. I’m against their lifestyle being pushed on our children.” She added, “Actually, my family says I’m too nice to them.”
Silva has two students in Silver Spring’s Northwood High School. She also teaches Bible studies in several elementary schools across the county through a program called the Child Evangelism Fellowship, an international evangelical organization founded in 1937 for the purpose of “evangelizing” and “discipling” young students, according to its website. Silva said she joined the program because she wants students to “know the truth before they’re deceived.”
Sarah Brannen is the author of 24 children’s picture books, including Uncle Bobby’s Wedding—one of the storybooks at the center of the MCPS lawsuit.
“For many children, school library books are the only books they have access to read,” Brannen said in a recent interview with MoCo360. “Ensuring these books represent the full spectrum of the human experience is the opposite of indoctrination. Indoctrination would be limiting available resources to a single point of view.”
Plaintiffs’ attorney William Haun previously said his clients wouldn’t have any issue if schools merely wanted to teach “kindness [and] empathy” instead of presenting students with “heavily-contested ideas.”
When asked by MoCo360 how she would define empathy, MCPS parent Rev. Rachel Cornwell said she believes it means “being able to stand in another person’s shoes and understand them.”
“I’m a person of faith,” Cornwell said. “I sent my kids to MCPS so they could be exposed to other views. If they’re only learning from one perspective, that’s not an education.”
Cornwell is a Silver Spring parent of a young transgender student and the author of a recently-published book designed to help families support gender-diverse children. She attended the counter-protest on Tuesday to support books like Brannen’s being read to MCPS students without an opt-out.
Asked the same question by MoCo360 about empathy, Silva offered a different perspective.
“Empathy means to understand people. But you can be kind and friendly to someone without accepting who they are.”
Silva said her high school son refuses to use his classmates’ preferred pronouns because he believes that “you are what you are.” She said she herself would simply avoid using pronouns instead of misgendering someone because “you don’t have to be rude—there’s a happy medium.”
Removing students from MCPS
Protester Lucinda Gallalee, a grandparent from Silver Spring, said in the last two years her 15 and 11-year-old grandchildren were moved into private schools due to their parents’ concern about exposure to the LGBTQ+ community.
“It’s not necessary to the MCPS mission for them to include anything about sexuality in the curriculum,” Gallalee said. “And statistically, we don’t see a benefit.”
According to peer-reviewed medical studies, using a child’s chosen name and pronouns, enacting gender-affirming school policies, training teachers on gender identity and expression, and ensuring access to gender-affirming care have been shown to reduce school bullying and improve mental health outcomes for LGBTQ+ students.
Lacie Wooten-Holway is a former educator and parent who also ended up transferring their 17-year-old student out of MCPS, but for a much different reason. They said their nonbinary child left the school system due to transphobic bullying and death threats received while at Westland Middle and Bethesda-Chevy Chase High. Wooten-Holway themself identifies as genderfluid and uses she/they pronouns.
“It’s important to me that I be here today,” they said, clutching a chalk sign that read “you can’t opt out of our existence.” “The saddest thing to me is that there are absolutely gay people and trans people in that crowd, and they’re being denied their humanity.”
During the school board meeting later Tuesday morning, over a dozen community members presented testimony both for and against the opt-out policy, including several students. The youngest was the child of Jeff Ganz and husband, Dennis Williams, who attended the counter-protest in support of the inclusive curriculum. Williams sat beside his son at the school board table as the child read handwritten testimony off a crumpled piece of notepaper.
“We deserve to have books in our school that teach people about LGBTQ and stuff. It’s not touching you, hurting you physically, or doing any physical damage. I don’t know why you hate it so much,” he testified. “I have two gay parents, […] and I am pansexual. I hope that these books stay in schools, districts and states because they teach you about stuff.”
After public comments, Mink testified to the school board to reiterate that allowing an opt-out option would create harm for LGBTQ+ students. Board member Lynne Harris (At-large) then closed the discussion by reemphasizing the district’s commitment to its inclusive curriculum.
“It does diminish a human being to say, ‘Seeing a character like you in a book is of such affront to some of your fellow students that they can leave the room and not hear the story,” she said.
Attorneys for the school board and superintendent have not yet filed a response to the legal complaint in the case regarding the storybooks. Their response deadline is June 7.