Protecting Parental Rights in Public Schools

Mahmoud v. McKnight and Our Children’s Best Interests

Eric Baxter

Parents are increasingly concerned that their role as primary directors of their children’s upbringing is being undermined and even usurped by public school systems. 

The concern is well-founded. Taking just one example, ideological instruction on gender identity has exploded nationwide, with controversies arising from New Jersey to California, and in heartland states like Kansas in between. Despite content that is highly controversial, such instruction is often thoroughly integrated into the schools, across a wide range of curricula, and even in the youngest grades. Parents are sometimes warned in advance of what will be taught in their child’s classroom, but often they are not. And even when they are notified, they are more frequently unable to opt-out.

The lack of notice does not stop at curriculum, either. Many schools are also withholding critical information from parents about their children’s health and well-being. It is estimated that nearly 11 million students currently attend schools in districts where policies encourage or require district personnel to keep a student’s transgender conduct or status hidden from parents.1www.defendinged.org/ investigations/list-of-school-district-transgender-gender-nonconforming-student-policies/

Most parents agree that children should be taught to treat others with dignity and respect. But they also want schools to respect parents’ role in making key decisions concerning how and when their children are taught about personal and sensitive topics, including gender and sexuality.  

Mahmoud v. McKnight

Unfortunately, many schools do not respect the role or rights of parents. That is why my law firm, Becket, is currently representing parents of pre-K and elementary-aged children in Maryland in a case called Mahmoud v. McKnight, challenging the Montgomery County School Board’s mandatory, one-sided gender ideology in federal court.2https://www.becketlaw.org/case/mahmoud- v-mcknight/

In the fall of 2022, the school board announced over 20 new “inclusivity” books that would be introduced in its pre-K through eighth-grade classrooms. One book called “Pride Puppy!” introduces 4 year olds to Pride parades and encourages them to look for images of a “[drag] queen,” “leather,” “underwear,” and “Marsha P. Johnson,” a controversial LGBTQ activist and sex worker. Another book advocates a child-knows-best approach to gender transitioning. Teachers are instructed to tell students that doctors only “guess” a baby’s sex at birth. Another book introduces words like “nonbinary” and “cisgender” and asks children which pronouns fit them best.

The board’s own elementary school principals objected to the new books, expressing concern that they “[s]tated as fact” things that many “would not agree [are] fact” and were “age-inappropriate,” “shaming” to children who disagreed, and “dismissive of religious beliefs.” They further warned it was “problematic to portray elementary-aged children falling in love with other children, regardless of sexual preferences.” 

When the books were first announced, the board assured hundreds of concerned parents that, under Maryland’s longstanding parental notification law and the board’s own religious diversity guidelines, they would be notified when the books would be read and have the ability to opt their children out.  

However, in March of 2023, the board abruptly changed course, announcing it would no longer honor parental opt-out requests or even notify the parents of more than 70,000 elementary kids when their children would be exposed to the Pride storybooks. The board’s internal documents show that it changed course because it wants to “disrupt” the “either/or thinking” of children on issues of gender and sexuality, acknowledging that such teaching may not be “easily contravened by their parents.”  

The parents refused to take the board’s decision as the final word.  

Courageous mothers and fathers from a variety of faith backgrounds—including Muslims, Catholics, Jews, and Christians—have united in seeking to guarantee their children an age-appropriate education that does not violate their religious beliefs and practices. Though coming from many different faiths, they are united in protecting the right of all parents to direct their children’s religious and intellectual education on such sensitive matters regarding family life and human sexuality. 

The Protection of Parental Right

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the rights of parents to direct the religious upbringing of their children. The Supreme Court has long recognized that “the child is not the mere creature of the State.”3Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 65 (2000), quoting Pierce v. Soc’y of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 535 (1925). The court recently re-affirmed that principle, explaining that there is an “enduring American tradition” that has “long recognized the rights of parents to direct the religious upbringing of their children.”4Espinoza v. Montana Dep’t of Revenue, 140 S.Ct. 2246, 2261 (2020). 

Parents have the right to make key decisions about the education of their children on delicate and controversial topics—especially where curriculum conflicts with sensitive and deeply held religious beliefs of a child’s family. 

Individual Supreme Court justices have also confirmed that a parent’s role is superior to those of school administrators. For example, Justice Alito warned of the follies that come with viewing public education as a mere delegation from parents to school administrators: “It is a dangerous fiction to pretend that parents simply delegate their authority—including their authority to determine what their children may say and hear—to public school authorities.”5Morse v. Frederick, 551 U.S. 393, 424 (2007) (Alito, J., concurring)   

Children’s most powerful advocates are their parents. And children are entitled to the guidance of their own parents on such critical matters. Parents with children in public schools have many tools at their disposal to support their children. They should:

We are optimistic that the parents and families of Montgomery County will ultimately prevail in their case. If they do, it will be powerful precedent that other states—including states without general notice and opt-out laws—must also notify parents that sensitive content surrounding sexuality and gender will be introduced in the classroom and that the parents must have the opportunity to choose whether their children will participate.  

The end of this story has yet to be written. But a victory in court for the parents of Montgomery County will also set a standard for parents of public school children around the country who are similarly concerned about whether or not their children’s schools and teachers will respect their rights as parents.

Case updates in Mahmoud v. McKnight can be found at https://www.becketlaw.org/case/mahmoud-v-mcknight/. 

Eric Baxter is vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24