St. Louis Park schools will allow families to opt out of LGBTQ+ books

The front of a building.
The St. Louis Park Public Schools district office, pictured on Nov. 28, 2023.
Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal through a partnership with MPR News.

St. Louis Park Public Schools will allow opt-outs for families who don’t want their children to read books with LGBTQ+ characters after six Somali Muslim families threatened to sue the district.

“We think this is a win for religious freedom for people of all faiths, without even having to go to court,” said Kayla Toney, an attorney for the First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based law firm focused on religious freedom that represents the parents.

Hodan Hassan, who has lived in St. Louis Park for 14 years and has four children in the district, said that she was glad when the district granted her request to allow her children to opt out of books with LGBTQ+ characters last week.

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“We came to America for religious freedom in the Constitution, and so our kids will have a great opportunity,” Hodan said in an interview. “By granting us and other families the opportunity to opt out of teaching that violates our deeply held religious beliefs, families are able to raise their children according to the principle that they value the most.”

In a statement, St. Louis Park Public Schools said it was proud of the diverse books in its literacy program and was committed to honoring all students’ identities.

“St. Louis Park Public Schools has always complied with the state law regarding parents’ statutory right to opt out of instructional materials, and we will continue to do so,” the district said. “However, district staff will not conduct that review on behalf of any families or attempt to determine what materials may be considered objectionable. Additionally, class discussions do not constitute instructional materials and are not subject to review or opt-outs.”

The district’s statement stressed that its decision was bound by state law.

“Opt-outs based on representation of protected classes do not uphold our values of creating safe and inclusive learning and working environments in our schools,” the statement continued. “However, because it is required within state law, any change would need to happen with the involvement of state lawmakers.”

‘Reasonable arrangements’

Under Minnesota law, every school district must have a procedure for parents to review instructional materials, and, if the parent objects to the content, “to make reasonable arrangements with school personnel for alternative instruction.”

But some legal experts have cautioned that districts must tread a careful line on accommodating these families, or risk a discrimination lawsuit.

“The parental curriculum review statute says a school district needs to have a procedure for parents to review the content of instructional materials,” Christy Hall, senior staff attorney for Gender Justice, a St. Paul-based law firm focused on gender equity, told Sahan Journal in December. “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 early October, teachers at several St. Louis Park elementary schools introduced books with LGBTQ+ characters. Those books included “Our Subway Baby,” about two dads who adopt a baby; “My Shadow Is Pink,” about a boy who likes to wear dresses; and “Ho’onani: Hula Warrior,” about a young genderqueer Hawaiian child who wants to lead a boys’ hula troupe. Parents said they had made requests to exempt their children from reading these books to two elementary school principals, but the principals refused.

The parents then brought their concerns to the Oct. 24 school board meeting.

“We wholeheartedly respect the importance of affirming LGBTQ+ identities, but we are troubled by the way these books have been presented to our children,” said one mother, who identified herself by her first name, Ilhan. “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.”

Board Member Sarah Davis, who is married to a woman and has two children, spoke up at the end of the meeting.

“I’m thinking about my child,” she said, her voice choked up. “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.”

The parents contacted the First Liberty Institute, which has argued several religious freedom cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. In November and December, Toney sent two demand letters to the district on her clients’ behalf, requesting that the schools allow their children to opt out of these books and receive advance notice of any discussions of LGBTQ+ issues. The December letter criticized the district’s form to request alternative instruction as overly intrusive and burdensome for immigrant families.

The St. Louis Park Public Schools district policy advises parents who wish to review curriculum materials to contact their child’s teacher. Parents can either borrow the materials or review them at school. But in her December letter, Toney said that parents needed advance notice of curriculum and classroom discussion. Unless the district provided this notice, Toney continued, she would “proceed as our clients direct, likely pursuing all available legal remedies.”

In a January email to the First Liberty Institute, Maggie Wallner, counsel for St. Louis Park Public Schools, affirmed that the district would allow parents to review curriculum and pursue alternative instruction. But she also indicated the district would not change its curriculum review procedures.

“The District understands its obligation under Minnesota law to provide families an opportunity to review the content of instructional materials and pursue alternative instruction,” Wallner wrote. However, she stopped short of agreeing to review curriculum materials on the parents’ behalf. “District staff does not and will not conduct a review on behalf of families or attempt to determine what materials may be considered objectionable.”

Toney said that her clients had since filled out the form the district provided, skipping questions they did not want to answer. They requested to opt out of the three picture books they had already encountered in class, as well as any other “teaching on LGBTQ+ sexualities, sexual orientation or gender identity,” she said.

In the past two weeks, all six of her clients had been notified that their requests to opt out of LGBTQ+ books had been granted. The middle school had even guaranteed in writing that it would provide advance notice on these topics, Toney said, though she declined to share the letter, citing the privacy of minors.

“The fact that at least one of them is able to do it shows that any school should be able to provide advance notice,” Toney said. “That’s our understanding of the law.”

Rachel Hicks, the district’s communications director, said that one middle school family had received this notice after meeting with teachers and the principal to request alternative instruction. But advance notice would not be provided more broadly, she said. “This is a particular case in middle school where it is being done for this particular family.”

Hodan said she was happy the district had recognized the importance her community places on what children are taught.

“All we ever wanted was to know what our kids are learning and make sure that it doesn’t conflict with our faith,” she said.

Toney said she was encouraged to resolve the matter without going to court. But she said she would continue to monitor how the district responds to her clients’ requests for advance notice.

“We are hopeful that they will in fact follow through with this guarantee,” she said. “And if they don’t, we’ll certainly stay tuned and continue to defend our clients where that’s necessary.”