Religious freedom is for all Minnesotans

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Diversity is undoubtedly an important feature of the state of Minnesota and the U.S. as a whole. America is a pluralistic society where people of any faith are free to practice their religion in the way they see fit and raise their children according to their sincere religious beliefs. Thus, any emphasis on diversity and inclusion must acknowledge and respect religious families as valuable members of a diverse society, because religion is a protected class under the law and the Constitution.

That’s why six Somali Muslim families in St. Louis Park decided to stand up for their faith and their children. When their third- and fourth-grade students were exposed to books and discussions promoting LGBTQ sexuality and identity without their knowledge or consent, their mothers took a simple, peaceful action. They asked their elementary school principals if they could opt their children out of these lessons, without changing the curriculum one bit — and the school district refused.

That was in October 2023. A few weeks later, several Somali moms testified at a school board meeting, respectfully asking for notice and opt-outs when their children encounter teaching about LGBTQ sexuality. One of the board members responded with open hostility, saying that “as a queer person,” she “expected solidarity” from the Muslim community, and that “we don’t need to talk about” their concerns. She refused to engage with the moms and left the meeting.

That’s when True North Legal and First Liberty Institute stepped in. We sent a demand letter on Nov. 2, explaining that Minnesota’s opt-out law requires school districts to provide notice to parents and the opportunity to request alternative learning. We also explained that the First Amendment protects parents’ ability to raise their children in accordance with their sincere religious beliefs, and that the school district’s hostility to these religious parents because of their faith violated the Free Exercise Clause.

Three weeks later, the district created an “Alternative Learning Procedure” that had not existed before, and posted it on its website in English, Spanish and Somali along with a newsletter letting families know about it for the first time. In January and February 2024, all six families, along with dozens of other families of various backgrounds, received written guarantees from the school district that their requests were granted. St. Louis Park Middle and High Schools granted opt-outs as well.

Thanks to these parents’ willingness to stand up for their religious beliefs and for their children, any parent can now request an opt-out for any reason. This means the protections of the First Amendment and Minnesota’s opt-out laws have become a reality for any parent who cares about what their child is learning in class. This is a win for all Minnesota parents and families who believe that parents have the right to teach their own children about sexuality, and to determine when kids should learn about sensitive topics.

As parents of young children, our clients share the same concerns of many parents across this state and the nation. They simply asked the school district to follow the law by giving them notice and an opportunity for alternative learning instruction when they learned that the school was teaching their children about sexuality and gender ideology that goes directly against their religious beliefs and what that their kids are learning at home.

While we are encouraged that the district has granted our clients’ requests, we are disappointed that some lawmakers and other groups have mischaracterized our clients’ requests, and that they have expressed vocal opposition to the rights of various faith communities in Minnesota. Families from a wide range of faith backgrounds, including Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Hindus and others who have sincerely held religious beliefs about human sexuality. And regardless of faith affiliation, many parents agree that they — not school administrators — should decide when and how their elementary-aged children encounter topics such as LGBTQ sexuality.

Like many other kinds of religious exemptions that are protected by law, opt-outs are a peaceful, pluralistic way to ensure that no one’s beliefs are trampled upon. Opt-outs are a very workable solution, because students are pulled out of class all the time for various reasons, including tutoring, English as a second language, music lessons and family commitments. Classmates will likely not even notice that some students are reading a different book or stepping out of class briefly, and they will certainly not know the reason why.

We are encouraged that our clients’ opt-out requests have been granted without needing to go to court at this time. However, we will continue to monitor the situation to ensure that our clients and other families receive the opt-outs they have been promised, and that their constitutional rights are not ignored or violated again. In a spirit of diversity and inclusion, let’s work together to ensure that religious diversity is respected, and religious families are included — across this beautiful state and across the nation.

Renee Carlson is general counsel of True North Legal (truenorthlegal.org), a nonprofit public interest law firm based in Minnesota that is an initiative of Minnesota Family Institute. Kayla Toney is associate counsel for First Liberty Institute (firstliberty.org), a nonprofit public interest law firm and the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.

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