This story was updated at 1:27 p.m. to include comments from the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Montgomery County Public Schools issued a statement Thursday reaffirming its “commitment to cultivating an inclusive and welcoming learning environment” by not allowing parents to opt their children out of LGBTQ+ storybooks. The statement comes after months of protests, petitions and a lawsuit from parents as well as national and local organizations requesting an opt-out option.
The school district will continue to not notify parents when LGBTQ+ inclusive storybooks are read in class, and it will not allow families to opt students out of such materials.
“The diverse composition of MCPS families makes it impossible to notify parents of upcoming readings, discussions, or classroom activities that may conflict with their personal beliefs,” the statement reads. “Maryland law permits students and families to opt out of ‘Family Life and Human Sexuality Unit of Instruction’ but not other curriculum, such as the English Language Arts Curriculum.”
MCPS first announced that it would not allow an opt-out in March—a decision met with anger and outcry from some Christian and Muslim families. In May, three families filed a lawsuit against MCPS alleging the opt-out violates their constitutional right to religious expression. Dozens of residents have testified before the school board for and against an opt-out, and two large protests against the policy have been held outside school board headquarters—most recently on June 27.
The school district’s newly-published two-page guide outlines its process for selecting instructional materials and explains the role books with diverse characters play in a robust school curriculum. MCPS clarified that there is no “LGBTQ+ curriculum” in elementary school and that the storybooks in question are merely a facet of age-appropriate representation within the district’s diverse curriculum offerings.
MoCo360 reached out to both the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Montgomery County Muslim Council for comment. The two groups have been instrumental in organizing pro-opt-out rallies and efforts in recent months.
On behalf of the Montgomery County Muslim Council, Outreach Director Hisham Garti said the organization still disagrees with the school district’s policy and believes it’s “wrong on so many levels.” He added that the pending litigation will ultimately decide whether the district is right or wrong.
“[This school policy] shows clear bias toward one minority versus others, and that’s the heart of the problem,” Garti said. “In our opinion, really what MCPS is doing is dividing its community.”
He said that with this perceived divide comes “the element you cannot control, like the incidents that happened in Silver Spring,” referring to a recent string of vandalism involving the burning of pride flags and Ukrainian flags, which Garti denounced as hate crimes.
Regional CAIR director Zainab Chaudry described the new MCPS document as “disappointing and contradictory.” She wrote to MoCo360:
“MCPS is the only school system in the country that has revoked the right to opt out in this manner, and it sets a dangerous precedent for all vulnerable communities. This struggle will continue until MCPS honors the intent of Maryland law and respects the rights of parents and students by restoring this measure.”
CAIR has previously characterized the inclusive storybooks as potentially “age-inappropriate” and violative of religious beliefs.
The MCPS document reads:
“There is no explicit instruction on gender and sexual identity in elementary school as part of content instruction. Diversifying texts in elementary school will help young people develop empathy for a diverse group of people and learn about identities that might relate to their families or community members.
“Research also shows that inclusive materials are a key component of a safe and supportive environment for LGBTQ+ students and increase positive psychosocial and educational outcomes.”
Christina Celenza and her wife live in the school district’s Bethesda-Chevy Chase cluster with their 12-year-old son and have been following the debate over the inclusive curriculum with deep concern, Celenza said. This summer, her family made the difficult decision to pull their son from public school due to the bullying he’s experienced—including multiple students telling him that “his moms are sinners,” she said.
“The more we humanize each other and understand what other families look like, the kinder and more compassionate we can be toward one another,” she said. “You can absolutely opt your kids out of sexually explicit content. What can’t be opted out of is the rich tapestry that makes our county great. We all need to learn about everyone in this beautiful, vibrant community. And we know kids do better when they have that knowledge.”