In June, nearly a thousand people protested against a Montgomery County school board mandate that says kids must read, or be read, books featuring LGBT topics. (Sarah L. Voisin via The Washington Post)

The Revolt of Religious Parents in Montgomery County

A fight over a school curriculum has made strange bedfellows of Muslims, Christians, and Latter-day Saints.

On Thursday, a Maryland district court sent a clear message to parents at Montgomery County Public Schools: you don’t get a say in what your kids read at school.

Or more specifically, as the court concluded, a parent’s right to opt out of a public school curriculum that “conflicts with their religious views is not a fundamental right.”

The ruling was a shock to parents, the majority of them Muslim and Ethiopian Christians, who supported a federal lawsuit against the Montgomery County Board of Education earlier this summer in response to new requirements that their children—many as young as prekindergarten age—would be mandated to read (or have teachers read them) books about LGBT topics, regardless of their parents’ objections. “It’s very disrespectful,” Shaykh El Hadji Sall, the parent of three children who attend a school in the system, told me at a rally organized by parents Thursday. “It’s ignoring the will of the people.”

Most parents at the rally weren’t surprised by the court’s decision, but they weren’t defeatist, either. They’re in this for the long haul.

For some, like Raef Haggag, 41, it’s a battle he’s been waging for almost half a year. It began for him in February, when he received an email from the Montgomery County public school system informing him that all classrooms—including the first-grade class his daughter attended—would be adding “LGBTQ-inclusive texts approved for instructional use.” The email added: “There is an expectation that teachers utilize these inclusive lessons and texts with all students.”

The list alarmed Haggag. It featured books like IntersectionAllies: We Make Room for All; Born Ready: The True Story of a Boy Named Penelope; Rainbow Revolutionaries: Fifty LGBTQ+ People Who Made History; The Stonewall Riots: Coming Out in the Streets; and Pride Puppy!, aimed at children aged 3 to 5, which asks readers to search for images from a word list that includes intersex, drag queen, underwear, leather, and the name Marsha P. Johnson, a celebrated (and controversial) trans activist and sex worker.

Haggag was in disbelief. As a devout Muslim, he didn’t want his daughter, who’s going into second grade this fall, reading any of this, certainly not at such a young age. The books, he told me, cover “sensitive topics that we object to, and don’t believe should be in our schools.”

He was far from alone. After the email, his daughter’s school was inundated with complaints from other Muslim families. And like many of his fellow concerned parents, Haggag availed himself of the school’s opt-out policy—adhering to a Maryland law that allows students to skip “instruction related to family life and human sexuality objectives.”

But that policy was revoked just a month later, when school administrators decided that the books fell into their English language arts curriculum rather than sexual education, and as such, they should not come with a “choose your own adventure” option.

The issue has united people across the faith spectrum in Maryland and beyond, including Muslims, Catholics, Ethiopian Christians, and Latter-day Saints. (Bethany Mandel for The Free Press)

Haggag, like thousands of other Muslim families in the area, didn’t come to Montgomery County for a narrow view of the world. (Muslims account for three percent of the county’s population, one of the highest urban concentrations of Muslims in the U.S.) His parents, who were born in Egypt, chose this county, routinely ranked among the most diverse in the nation, “because it was a safe and welcoming place to raise a family,” he told me. “There are many families like mine that came from different parts of the world and made America their home and care deeply about our state and country.”

Haggag briefly worked as a public school teacher—leaving a decade ago to focus on music—and his wife still teaches at a local elementary school. His latest project, MiniMuslims, is a digital platform that provides music, stories, and animations to educate and inspire Muslim kids about their faith and history.

This spring, Haggag helped co-found a group called Family Rights for Religious Freedoms (FRRF), created to fight the new curriculum—or at least restore the opt-out provision that lets parents decide if their children, still years away from puberty, would be required to read books about gender and sexual identity.

“It wasn’t just Muslim families who were concerned,” Haggag told me. “There were many other families of devout faith and we wanted to make sure everyone has a voice.”

Hiwot, an Ethiopian Christian mother (who declined to share her last name for fear of retaliation) and member of FRRF, called the school’s actions “a state-sponsored campaign to shame us into a corner.” For the first time, many in her church became energized civically, and busloads of Ethiopian Christians from her congregation have joined protests over the new policy at Board of Education meetings in the last few months.

Deacon preacher Amanuel Dereb, left, and Priest Samuel Woldmariam, both from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, protest against the Montgomery County school board in June. (Sarah L. Voisin via The Washington Post)

“They’re trying to replace our values,” Hiwot told me about the school administrators. “They’re not just pushing to read books. They’re creating an army of our kids. It’s a religion for them. I feel like as a Christian, my kids are getting rebaptized in another religion.” 

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