by Jorge Gomez • 5 min read
On Thursday, First Liberty sent a letter to the St. Louis Park Public School District in Minnesota urging officials to allow several children from Somali-American families to opt out of sexual content being taught in elementary English classes.
We represent several devout Muslim families that immigrated from war-torn Somalia. Religious freedom and educational opportunities are among the most significant reasons why they sought refuge in the United States. These parents believe they have an obligation to raise their children consistent with their faith.
In October, our clients’ third and fourth grade children informed them that their teachers had introduced books in class featuring LGBTQ characters and themes. The controversial readings were accompanied by the teachers’ commentary about what it means to be LGBTQ.
The families we represent asked for notice and the ability to opt out from books that discuss sexual orientation or gender identity. The district denied their requests.
Our letter explains that the denials violate the First Amendment. Courts have consistently recognized the link between parental rights and free exercise rights in the context of public-school policies.
The school district also violated state law, which requires school districts to give parents the opportunity to “review the content of the instructional materials to be provided to a minor child.”
We sent a letter explaining the law to school district officials. After that, the District created a complicated procedure where parents can request alternative learning instruction, but the District has yet to provide advance notice of when these topics will be covered in class.
“Diversity and inclusion must extend to religious families, too,” First Liberty attorney Kayla Toney said. “We are urging the district to follow state law and its own policy that allows parents to opt their children out of controversial subjects. State and federal laws are clear—the school is required to fully accommodate our clients.”
These books and discussions have caused significant distress for our clients and their children. Fatuma Irshat, a Somali mother of three with deep roots in the community, explained:
“We believe that we have a sacred obligation to teach the principles of our faith to our children without being undermined by the schools. We came to America because of its rich heritage of protecting religious liberty and the opportunity to raise our children in a place where they have access to success. We’re hopeful that the district will grant us a full accommodation.”
Teachers and administrators have a responsibility to work with parents to make sure classroom instruction respects the values, religious liberty and rights of conscience of all of their students. Instead, the schools and the school board have been uncooperative, hostile and dismissive.
At a school board meeting in October, several moms expressed their concern over the curriculum, the lack of notice, and the rejection of opt-outs:
“Our request is simply to be informed in advance when materials related to sexuality and LGBTQ are included in the curriculum, along with the option to exempt our children from those lessons. We firmly believe that diversity and inclusion are principles that should extend to all members of the community, including religious families like ours. Our faith teaches us to respect all individuals, and we are dedicated to that principle. Our primary concern is that our children are encountering material that is sexualized and not age-appropriate in a school environment.”
One of the school board members who responded said it was “disappointing” to “have this come up.” She refused to engage with the moms and walked out of the meeting.
On Dec. 5, the St. Louis Park School District published a notice saying its curriculum “seeks to be inclusive and reflect the diversity of our students and families.” Its website also boasts about the District’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. But apparently its version of “diversity and inclusion” doesn’t apply to these religious parents.
This issue, of course, isn’t just impacting the Somali community in one Minnesota school district. We’re witnessing similar attacks on parental rights and religious freedom everywhere in the country. This is affecting people of ALL faiths.
Just this week, attorneys for a group of over 300 Catholic, Muslim and Ethiopian Orthodox parents from Montgomery County, Maryland, argued in federal appeals court that the parents should be allowed to opt their children out of school reading materials promoting LGBTQ ideology.
Parents have a constitutionally protected right to direct their children’s education, which includes the freedom to impart their sincere religious beliefs to their children without government interference. They also have the right to know what their children are learning in school, especially when that material goes against their sincerely held religious beliefs.
Schools shouldn’t force students to participate in anything that violates their religious convictions. The District needs to do what’s right and follow the law. It should end this clearly unlawful behavior and protect the religious liberty of every student by granting these parents the ability to opt their children out.