How the fight against LGBTQ+ books in Maryland’s liberal Montgomery County became a national issue

Sarah Aljerjawi, 37, center, of Germantown, and a mother of four studentsin the Montgomery County Public Schools, participates in a protest of a policy that would require elementary school students to read books with LGBTQ+ characters. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Sarah L. Voisin

For the past few months, hundreds of Muslim and Ethiopian Orthodox parents have called on Maryland’s largest school system to restore an opt-out provision for books that feature LGBTQ+ characters.

These new advocacy groups in Montgomery County say they prize inclusion. They align with the school system’s general diversity and equity efforts in their children’s schools and laud Superintendent Monifa B. McKnight for a speech she delivered against hate. They have pushed for underrepresented groups like themselves to be reflected in the school’s curriculum and accommodations for their religious holidays and practices.

But these groups, which turned out more than 500 people at a rally last week in Rockville, diverge from progressives on this issue.

They say elementary school students should be able withdraw from lessons featuring books that can lead to conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity – topics they say should be handled by parents at home. Some parents describe the books as “sexual content” and point to “Pride Puppy,” a book for pre-K students that has a scavenger hunt that directs students to look for people like noted LGBTQ+ rights activist Marsha P. Johnson, who parents targeted for her occasional sex work, as well as items like underwear and leather. Three families have also filed a lawsuit against the school system.

“None of us are anti-LGBT; none of us hold any hatred toward them. We recognize they have a different value system,” said Raef Haggag, a parent of a rising second grader in the school system and former computer science teacher. “We want to be able to introduce our children to these sensitive topics which are intertwined with our faith in a very sensitive way.”

Montgomery County – a deep blue, culturally diverse suburb of Washington, D.C. – has long highlighted its inclusionary efforts. The books are a part of a supplemental curriculum introduced during the 2022-23 school year to diversify its English Language Arts curriculum. Students have repeatedly requested books and curriculum that represent LGBTQ+ identities over the years, according to four former and current student representatives on the county board of education.

The school system put an opt-out provision in place when the books were introduced, schools spokeswoman Jessica Baxter said. But that guidance shifted in March. Montgomery school officials say that Maryland law doesn’t allow students to withdraw from school lessons, except for a portion of the state’s health education curriculum on family life and human sexuality. Because the books are part of the English Language Arts curriculum, no exemptions are allowed. A spokesperson for the Maryland State Board of Education agreed with that analysis.

But the religious and conservative groups say the school system can still provide the allowance, because of a school policy that promises “feasible and reasonable accommodations” to religious beliefs and practices.

Pushback against the books and their lessons began publicly in January when Lindsey Smith – the chair of the Montgomery chapter of Moms for Liberty – spoke against them at a school board meeting, calling the books and their lessons “indoctrination, not education.” When the opt-out provision was revoked in March, she and other parents began hosting silent protests holding signs during school board meetings and eventually speaking on the topic during each meeting.

The school system’s decision also led to some complaints from Muslim parents, who contacted the Maryland office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Montgomery County Muslim Council – both advocacy groups. The two entities began organizing parents to speak at school board meetings, and as opposition grew, outsiders joined the fight, with national conservative groups and media following the issue.

For Smith, the additional support was a relief.

“For us at Moms for Liberty, we’ve only had 50 to 100 people there,” said Smith, a mother of three in the school system who lives in Damascus. “So it was encouraging to know we were not alone, to be honest.”

But as the movement has grown, there have been divisions. The groups that have organized Muslim parents in the county have distanced themselves from and say they have no affiliation with Moms for Liberty, a controversial national parental rights advocacy group.

“They’re supporting the Muslim community. They’re supporting parents because they also want the right to restore opt-out,” said Zainab Chaudry, the director of the Maryland Office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “But their ideology, their views, their positions are antithetical to what our communities stand for.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center recently categorized Moms for Liberty as an extremist group. Smith has deferred comments about that designation to the national organizers behind Moms for Liberty.

As the fight in Montgomery has gained national attention, Chaudry and leaders of other local groups have tried to keep the focus on the county’s parents and students and have denounced other groups trying to make their efforts a political cause.

“The message can be undone immediately and it can be completely switched,” said Hisham Garti, the outreach director for the Montgomery County Muslim Council.

Some individuals hope the issue will galvanize more Muslims in the political arena. Sameerah Munshi, 22, a part of Coalition of Virtue, explained that the group was co-founded by a Howard County resident with the Montgomery book issue in mind, but plans to expand to other issues and give Muslim Americans a platform to use their faith as a tool in politics.

Despite the opposition, there is support for the school system’s policy and use of the books in its curriculum from the teacher’s union, some school board members and students. Some parents have similarly formed their own group, called the Coalition for Inclusive Schools and Communities, and launched their own petition to show support.

The school system reinforced its policies in an email to parents last week. “There is no content instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in elementary school. The books include a diversified representation of people. Inclusive books support a student’s ability to empathize, connect, and collaborate with diverse peers and encourage respect for all,” the message said. It also repeated that no opt-out would be provided to families and giving advance notice before the books are read “will not be possible.”

The incoming student representative on the school board, Sami Saeed, delivered remarks at a May board meeting that spoke of how there is “overwhelming support” for the books and the elimination of an exemption. After he spoke, he said a few parents approached him after and were surprised by his position as the first known Arab student member on the board. “A lot of [the parents] expressed to me that when I went against what they were thinking, it was almost like a shock,” Saeed, a rising senior in the school system, said.

But after hearing from more parents on both sides of the issue, he said he would be supportive of notifying them in advance of the books being read so they can talk about it with their kids at home, but not allow them to skip the lessons.



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