RFI Defends Somali Muslim Parents against Minnesota School Board

December 13, 2023

By Ismail Royer

The Religious Freedom Institute (RFI) is defending Muslim parents, most of whom came to the United States from war-torn Somalia, from a suburban Minneapolis school district that mandates “LGBTQ” instruction for children as young as five. 

The parents – whose children attend schools in the St. Louis Park, Minn. school district – reached out to RFI in October after their children told them their teachers had introduced concerning and confusing materials in their classroom. When we reviewed this content, it became clear that it was highly age-inappropriate and ideologically-oriented. The materials include the book Ho’onani Hula Warrior, which teaches children they can be something “between” a boy and a girl. The book’s author has said she aimed to make this ideological teaching “subtle yet strong.”

Parents explained to school officials that this material violates the religious beliefs that they want to pass on to their children, but the officials dismissed their concerns. They refused to entertain parents’ requests to opt their children out of the new curriculum or to provide alternative instruction. An elementary school principal told one mother that her children could not opt out because they “need” to be taught about “gender identity” and sexuality.

I met with the parents and community leaders to research the case, strategize, and determine the best way to advocate for the parents and secure their rights. I linked the Minnesota parents with parents in Montgomery County, Maryland, whom RFI has been supporting in a similar battle, in order to learn from their experience and to help prepare them to testify about their objections to the new curriculum at an upcoming school board meeting. I also connected the parents with attorneys at First Liberty Institute, a religious liberty law firm with which RFI frequently partners.

At a school board in late October, several of the Muslim parents delivered compelling, winsome testimony detailing their faith-based objections to the curriculum and the failure of school officials to take their concerns seriously. Most of the board members listened respectfully to the parents, but one member, Sarah Davis, wept tears of outrage. “I expect solidarity” from Muslims, she said, because the “queer community” has supported the “marginalized Muslim community.” When one parent tried respectfully to address Ms. Davis’s comments, she replied angrily, “I am not going to engage.”

In response to the parents’ testimony and a November demand letter from their attorneys, the St. Louis Park school board agreed to allow parents to request alternative instruction to the “gender identity” and sexuality materials. However, as their attorneys explained in a follow-up letter, the form the school created for parents to request alternative instruction requires them to write complex, detailed explanations of the religious basis for their objection to the material. Oddly, the opt-out request form also requires parents to write a paragraph about the possible benefits to their child of the very instruction they are objecting to. In reality, the school board’s so-called accommodation is merely another attempt to suppress the rights of these parents.

If the St. Louis Park school board does not provide a meaningful opportunity for parents to remove their children from instruction that directly contradicts their family’s religious beliefs, the parents will likely sue the district in federal court. The school board must respect their right to raise their children in accord with their religious convictions. RFI will continue to stand by these parents and advocate for their constitutional rights to free exercise and to direct the upbringing of their children.  

Ismail Royer is Director of RFI’s Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team.