by Becky Z. Dernbach
Friday December 8, 2023
The St. Louis Park dispute is the latest escalation in the growing pushback from some Muslim parents against inclusion efforts in Minnesota schools. Parents in Ham Lake and Burnsville have criticized LGBTQ efforts there.
A law firm representing six Somali Muslim families has sent a letter to the St. Louis Park School Board and interim superintendent, saying they will “pursue legal recourse” if the district does not allow them to opt their children out of reading picture books with LGBTQ characters.
The First Liberty Institute, a conservative Texas–based law firm focused on religious freedom, sent the letter on November 2, laying out an explanation of Islamic teachings about gender and sexuality, a timeline of parents’ complaints to teachers and principals about the books, and allegations of violations of the U.S. Constitution, Minnesota law, and St. Louis Park district policy.
The letter demands that the district provide advance notice to parents and an opportunity to opt students out of books or class discussion about sexuality or LGBTQ themes. It also requests that the district include at least one Somali Muslim parent on any committee that reviews curriculum. Sahan Journal obtained a copy of the letter from the school district through a public records request.
“Teachers and administrators have a responsibility to work with parents to make sure their instruction respects the values, religious liberty, and rights of conscience of all their students,” Kayla Toney, an attorney for the First Liberty Institute, said in a November 28 statement to Sahan Journal. “This is the very reason Minnesota has a state law requiring opt-outs, and the reason why St. Louis Park has a district policy of involving parents in the discussion of controversial materials.
“Our clients believe that they have a sacred obligation to teach the principles of their faith to their children without being undermined by their children’s school.”
The St. Louis Park letter is the latest escalation in the growing pushback from some Muslim parents against inclusion efforts in Minnesota schools. Dozens of Muslim parents in Ham Lake and Burnsville have criticized efforts to protect transgender children or expand LGBTQ books in schools.
Yet so far, none of those protests have resulted in legal action. It’s unclear what legal precedent could be set if the St. Louis Park case winds up in court.
The First Liberty Institute, which represents the St. Louis Park parents, has argued several religious freedom cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. In one recent high-profile case, the firm represented a high school football coach who wanted to lead his students in prayer during a football game; the Supreme Court ultimately sided with the coach.
The school district sent a newsletter to families on December 1 about inclusive learning materials, which included information about how parents can join the curriculum review committee. The newsletter also included links to forms that allows parents to request alternative instructional materials in English, Spanish, and Somali.
District Communications Director Rachel Hicks said that the district would follow its board-approved policies and procedures, which allow families to seek alternative curriculum and classroom materials.
She added that the district was proud of its new K–5 literacy program, which includes books with racially and culturally diverse characters as well as LGBTQ families and characters.
“These materials are in alignment with the values that we hold in St. Louis Park Public Schools around inclusive beliefs and identities, which is why we’ve intentionally shared these points of pride with our community this school year,” she said.
Toney said Wednesday that her clients were “encouraged” by the district’s newsletter.
“We think this is a step in the right direction toward accommodating our clients,” she said.
However, she said, her clients still have some concerns. Toney declined to specify what those concerns were, saying the First Liberty Institute would make them public later in the week. The Somali mother who initially contacted Sahan Journal about this issue declined to speak on the record, deferring instead to Toney, who is representing the parents.
The St. Louis Park controversy marks at least the third time in the past twelve months that Muslim families have protested LGBTQ curriculum in Minnesota schools. In September, Muslim families at DaVinci Academy, a Ham Lake charter school serving grades K through 8, staged an attendance strike in protest of the school’s use of picture books with LGBTQ characters. The parents said they would withdraw their children if the school continued to use the books.
In Burnsville last December, hundreds of Somali parents packed school meetings out of concern about a new policy across all grade levels aimed at preventing district staff from revealing a child’s transgender identity to anyone else. Parents worried the policy would result in schools withholding critical information about their own children from them.
A decades-old Minnesota law requires that school districts create a “parental curriculum review” process. Districts must allow parents to review instructional materials and, if they object, “make reasonable arrangements with school personnel for alternative instruction.”
But LGBTQ advocates caution that school districts should approach these issues carefully, and that the parental curriculum review statute may not be as sweeping as some parents’ rights groups claim.
Christy Hall, a senior staff attorney with Gender Justice, a St. Paul–based law firm focused on gender equity, said the statute has never been tested in court. However, she added, if school districts make it too easy for parents to opt their children out of LGBTQ material, they could risk being sued for anti-LGBTQ discrimination.
“It is a minefield,” she said. “The potential for being sued by the other side if you do the wrong thing is very real.”
‘All we ask is just to be respected in our religion’
St. Louis Park School Board members first learned about Somali parents’ objections to LGBTQ picture books, which are part of a new literacy curriculum, during the October 24 board meeting. When school board chair Anne Casey opened the floor for public comment, a woman named Ilhan addressed the board, saying she spoke as a representative of the Somali community. Casey only identified the woman and other speakers by their first names.
Ilhan said she had a “pressing concern” about some books used in third-grade classrooms in St. Louis Park elementary schools. Some children had reported reading the books Our Subway Baby, about two dads who adopt a baby, and Ho’onani: Hula Warrior, about a young genderqueer Hawaiian child who wants to lead a boys’ hula troupe.
“We wholeheartedly respect the importance of affirming LGBTQ identities, but we are troubled by the way these books have been presented to our children,” Ilhan said. “The manner in which they have been taught appears to exceed the boundaries of affirmation, urging every child to delve into their own understanding of gender and sexuality. This approach, we believe, directly conflicts with our deeply held religious beliefs.”
Ilhan said that the U.S. Constitution protected her parental and religious rights. She emphasized that her concerns were not rooted in animosity, and that the parents were not advocating for changes to the school or curriculum.
“It is disheartening that these books were introduced to our children without our knowledge or consent, leaving us with no recourse to opt out,” she said. “Our request is simply to be informed in advance when materials related to sexuality and LGBTQ identity are included in the curriculum, along with the option to exempt our children from those specific lessons.”
A mother named Saharla spoke next, requesting a form to exempt her children from “LGBT-related activities.”
The final speaker, Shugri, echoed the previous two commenters.
“All we ask is that if these topics are being discussed in the class, to give us the chance to take our kids out of the class for that moment,” Shugri said. “We don’t hate anyone. We don’t teach any of that to our kids. All we ask is just to be respected in our religion. This is something very, very important to us.”
As is common practice at school board meetings, board members did not immediately address the remarks raised during the public comment period, where people can speak about any issue of their choosing. But board member Sarah Davis, who is married to a woman and has two children, spoke up at the end of the meeting, noting that she has been open about her queer identity.
“Queer people exist,” she said. “We’re here. We’re going to continue to be here.”
Her voice choked up.
“I’m thinking about my child,” she said, appearing to blink back tears. “I’m thinking about what it would feel like for him if I said that having a book about a concept of two dads—he has two moms—is troubling. The idea that my wife and I exist, that our family exists, is not controversial.”
Davis said that while she appreciated the respect the speakers had tried to show, she wanted them to know how their remarks affected a queer parent. Davis wondered aloud how her son would feel if other children told him they could not be exposed to his family.
“He talks about it at circle time at school, or he should feel like he can,” Davis said. “He presents a picture of our family at school. He has two moms. He gets made fun of for having two moms. We don’t need to talk about excluding books from our schools that reflect that identity.”
Shugri spoke up from the audience.
“We respect everyone,” Shugri said. “Like we said, we’re just trying to protect our kids. We believe in our religion, and we’re going to stick to that.”
‘We should all learn about each other’
Some students of color at St. Louis Park High School told Sahan Journal that picture books can help young students learn about their community.
A., a 16-year-old high school junior who is Somali and Muslim, asked to be identified by her first initial only because she fears backlash from her community, and said she has witnessed Representative Ilhan Omar face backlash for supporting LGBTQ rights.
A. explained that her values on LGBTQ issues differ greatly from her family and “much of the Somali community.” A. said she was taught that acting on same-sex attraction is considered a sin in Islam. She said her parents and many other Somali community members think that being LGBTQ is a choice, which she disagrees with.
“I think love is love, and people should do as they please with that,” she said.
A. described picture books as “a way of learning about your surroundings, learning about who’s around you, and be accepting.” She said she would have loved to have read books like those as a child to understand that queer couples exist and to challenge gender stereotypes.
“I feel like we should all learn about each other, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel, because it is reality,” A. said. “It is something we’re all going to face in the real world. You can’t shield your child forever.”
Jaiden Leary, a 16-year-old junior at St. Louis Park High School, said it was “disappointing” to learn about parents’ objections to the books.
“When you send your kids to public education, if you get to restrict what they see and what they experience, you restrict them of knowledge,” said Jaiden, a biracial Black and white student. “And when they go into this world, they need this knowledge whether you agree with it or not.”
If kids don’t have the opportunity to read about gay couples, he said, they might be surprised or have a negative reaction the first time they encounter such a couple.
Jaiden worried that the parents’ objections would fuel stereotypes that communities of color, and specifically the Somali community, are homophobic. He said that it is often white Christian moms, who may have more institutional power, who object to LGBTQ material in schools. But, he said, many people are more likely to see those moms as individuals and not as representatives of an entire religion—a privilege he worries is not afforded to Somali parents.
State law open to interpretation
Kayla Toney, the lawyer with the First Liberty Institute, describes Minnesota’s parental curriculum review law as “requiring opt-outs.” But Christy Hall, staff attorney at Gender Justice in St. Paul, said it isn’t so simple. Hall said that Minnesota courts have never had to interpret the law in the context of other statutes, like the Minnesota Human Rights Act. That law prohibits discrimination on the basis of protected statuses, including sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
“The parental curriculum review statute says a school district needs to have a procedure for parents to review the content of instructional materials,” Hall said. “It does not say that procedure needs to be, ‘You tell me if there’s any LGBTQ+ content, and then I will opt my child out of it.’”
In Hall’s view, providing parents with a list of LGBTQ content so they can opt their children out would violate the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
“I don’t think many schools have really thought through how it applies to this,” Hall said, “and losing a lawsuit under the Minnesota Human Rights Act is expensive.”
Hall described St. Louis Park Public Schools’ statements to Sahan Journal and in its December 1 newsletter as “carefully crafted,” allowing parents to make requests for alternative materials, but still letting the district decide whether to grant them on a case-by-case basis.
Hall noted that Montgomery County Public Schools, in Maryland, ultimately determined in March 2023 that allowing families to opt out of books with LGBTQ characters was overly burdensome. When Muslim and Christian families sued Montgomery County Public Schools for not allowing them to opt out, a federal judge sided with the school district.
“Every court that has addressed the question has concluded that the mere exposure in public school to ideas that contradict religious beliefs does not burden the religious exercise of students or parents,” U.S. District Judge Deborah Boardman wrote in her August 2023 order denying a preliminary injunction in the Maryland case.
The Maryland families who want to opt their children out of the books appealed the decision to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard the case this past Tuesday.
Hall stressed that these cases are complicated, and that school districts facing such controversies should obtain expert legal advice. But, she added, the Maryland case shows how a federal court might interpret the law.
“Sometimes people make risk assessments based on a sense that the federal courts are hostile to LGBTQ rights,” Hall said. “I don’t think that’s true, and I don’t think people should rely on that.”