Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Somali families in St. Louis Park push to let children opt out of reading LGBTQ+ books

Saturday December 9, 2023

ST. LOUIS PARK, Minn. — A letter sent on behalf of Muslim families in St. Louis Park threatens legal action unless parents are notified and allow their children to opt out of classroom discussions about sexuality and LGBTQ+ topics.

The letter, which was first reported by the Sahan Journal, was sent to the superintendent and school board by First Liberty Institute, a conservative Christian law firm based in Texas that fights First Amendment cases on religious freedom.

The families are described as devout Muslims who emigrated from Somalia over the past two decades. Their children, enrolled at Aquila Elementary School and Susan Lindgren Elementary School, were introduced to LGBTQ+ characters in picture books, which caused “significant confusion and distress,” the letter states.

One book, “Our Subway Baby” tells the story of how a man and his husband adopted a baby together. Another picture book, “Ho’onani: Hula Warrior” describes a genderqueer child who wants to join a boys-only hula troupe. The books are a part of a new literacy curriculum that launched in the fall, which was designed to include more LGBTQ+ stories, as well as more diversity in race, culture, and language.

The letter goes on to say that several parents spoke out about their concerns in early October, and submitted an exemption request citing school board policy, which allows students to be excused from participating in controversial issues upon a parent’s request. However the parents were told that the materials were part of the curriculum and opting out would not be possible.

Then on Oct. 24, three Somali Muslim women testified at a St. Louis Park school board meeting. They argued that they “respect the importance of affirming LGBTQ identities,” but were “troubled” that the books urge “every child to delve into their own understanding of sexuality and gender identity.” They asked to be informed in advance when materials related to LGBTQ+ identities would be included in the curriculum.

Though board members are typically barred from commenting during meetings, Sarah Davis responded by saying that “queer people exist, we’re here, we’re going to continue to be here.”

“As a queer person in a marginalized community, I would hope and expect solidarity,” she added.

First Liberty Institute argues the district is violating multiple laws, including the First and 14th Amendments, the U.S. Constitution, Minnesota law, and district policies.

One such policy requires the school board to establish an advisory community — which includes parents — to help implement inclusive policies. However, the letter states that Somali Muslim parents were not given the opportunity to serve on the committee.

A separate sex education policy requires that parents can review all materials on the topic upon request, and that students may be excused from participating in discussion if a parent or guardian asks.

The law firm asks that the district informs parents prior to discussion of LGBTQ+ themes and allows children to opt out. It also asks that at least one Somali Muslim parent is included on committees that review curriculum within the district. Unless the district submits to the request, the firm said they will “pursue legal recourse.”

“We understand that families may have diverse perspectives and preferences when it comes to the curriculum, reading materials and literature topics covered in the classroom,” St. Louis Park School District said in a statement. “We encourage parents and caregivers to engage in conversations directly with their teachers and principals if they have questions. We appreciate the partnership of families in creating an educational environment that respects the needs and humanity of each student.”

In a newsletter published on Dec. 1, the district encouraged all parents and caregivers to participate in the District Instructional Programs Advisory Council, which reviews school curricula.

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