By John Domen
A federal judge listened to arguments — and challenged the lawyers making them — for nearly three hours as parents suing the Montgomery County Public School system sought an injunction that would put a new policy prohibiting families from opting out of certain lessons on hold.
In May, a group of parents sued the school system over a new policy that said schools won’t give notice or allow students to opt out of lessons that involve books with LGBTQ characters.
The blanket ban on opt-outs, as a lawyer for the county called it, amends a previous policy that he said allowed parents to opt students out of the lessons for any reason whatsoever, be it political, religious or anything else.
Alan Schoenfeld, representing the school system, denied the policy would violate anyone’s religious freedom, saying no student would be compelled to affirm, or be penalized for not doing so, certain viewpoints related to sexuality. He promised that no one’s religious faith would be derided or impugned if they expressed disagreement during class discussions.
In addition, Schoenfeld argued that studies have shown that exposure to inclusive classroom climates and materials lead to fewer homophobic remarks and safer environments for marginalized students, which in turn advances school goals.
Describing the “blanket policy” as a sledgehammer and not a scalpel, Schoenfeld said there was “nothing to suggest religious animus” in the formulation of the new policy.
But Eric Baxter, who is arguing for a group of parents from varying religious faiths, as well as a coalition of others who call themselves “Kidsfirst,” blasted the arguments and said the new policy is coercive and forces students into discussions that parents feel are inappropriate.
Baxter told the judge that because private school is financially unfeasible for his clients, they have to sacrifice their religious beliefs in order to attend public schools. He said school board members have expressed hostility toward the viewpoints of parents concerned about the appropriateness of the lessons, while, ironically, their kids have been bullied for their beliefs.
“The school board is targeting religious parents here because of the specific religious objection that they have,” Baxter told reporters outside the courthouse afterward.
“The school board acknowledged today that they’re trying to suppress anything that would stigmatize LGBTQ students that would create feelings of hurt. Everybody wants to avoid those kinds of feelings,” said Baxter, who also challenged the study cited by MCPS inside the courthouse.
“We all agree that every student has inherent value, regardless of how they identify or the religious choices they make. Every child should know that they have value, that they have worth, they should be treated with respect and kindness. We all want that.”
Calling MCPS an outlier in how it’s working to attain that goal, he said the school system just went too far.
“Schools across the country are teaching those principles and those values without trying to indoctrinate students on issues that are culturally and religiously sensitive and complex,” said Baxter.
“All we’re asking is, let’s teach those values. Let’s absolutely require respect, kindness, civility in the classroom and elsewhere. But let’s not try to impose values on students in violation of what their families are trying to teach them.”
Baxter pointed to examples like Baltimore County, which actively discourages opt-outs but doesn’t deny them, as well as Carroll County, which teachers broader lessons about kindness and inclusivity without getting into sexual orientation.
“The parents don’t give up their rights just because they put their kids in public school,” he argued outside.
Judge Deborah Boardman said she would rule on the injunction request by Aug. 28, when the school year begins in Montgomery County.
Baxter hinted that an appeal would come if the judge sides with the county against the injunction while the lawsuit itself works its way through the legal system.
As part of Maryland Matters’ content sharing agreement with WTOP, we feature this article from John Domen. Click here for the WTOP News website.