A law firm representing six Somali Muslim families has sent a letter to St. Louis Park school officials saying they will "pursue legal recourse" if the district doesn't allow them to opt their children out of reading picture books with LGBTQ characters.

In the Nov. 2 letter — obtained by Sahan Journal from the school district through a public records request — the First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based law firm focused on religious freedom, lays out Islamic teachings about gender and sexuality and alleges that the St. Louis Park district is in violation of the U.S. Constitution, Minnesota law and its own policy.

The firm asks the district to provide advance notice to parents about books or class discussions on sexuality or LGBTQ themes to give them the chance to opt out, and to include at least one Somali Muslim parent on any committee that reviews curriculum.

"Teachers and administrators have a responsibility to work with parents to make sure their instruction respects the values, religious liberty, and rights of conscience of all their students," Kayla Toney, a First Liberty Institute attorney, said in a statement.

She added: "Our clients believe that they have a sacred obligation to teach the principles of their faith to their children without being undermined by their children's school."

The letter marks the latest escalation in the growing pushback from some Muslim parents over LGBTQ inclusion efforts in Minnesota schools. Dozens of Muslim parents in Ham Lake and Burnsville have criticized school district efforts to protect transgender children or offer LGBTQ books in schools. None of those protests have resulted in legal action.

The First Liberty Institute has argued several religious freedom cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. In a recent case, the firm represented a high school football coach in Washington state who wanted to lead his students in prayer during a football game. The high court ultimately sided with the coach.

The St. Louis Park school district sent a newsletter to families this month about inclusive learning materials, including information on how parents can join the curriculum review committee and how to get alternative instructional materials in English, Spanish and Somali.

District spokeswoman Rachel Hicks said the district was proud of its new K-5 literacy program, which includes books with racially and culturally diverse characters as well as LGBTQ families and characters.

"These materials are in alignment with the values that we hold in St. Louis Park Public Schools around inclusive beliefs and identities," she said.

Toney said that her clients were "encouraged" by the district's newsletter. "We think this is a step in the right direction," she said.

However, she said, the parents still have some concerns. In a follow-up letter to the school board, Toney said the school district had failed to provide advance notice of the curriculum and that the process to opt out of materials was too complicated.

A decades-old Minnesota law requires that school districts create a "parental curriculum review" process. Districts must allow parents to review instructional materials and, if they object, "make reasonable arrangements with school personnel for alternative instruction."

But LGBTQ advocates caution that the parental curriculum review statute may not be as sweeping as some parents' rights groups claim.

Christy Hall, a senior staff attorney with Gender Justice, a St. Paul-based law firm focused on gender equity, said the statute has never been tested in court. However, she said, if school districts make it too easy for parents to opt their children out of LGBTQ material, they could risk being sued for discrimination.

"It is a minefield," she said. "The potential for being sued by the other side if you do the wrong thing is very real."

St. Louis Park school board members first learned about the Somali parents' objections to LGBTQ picture books, which are part of a new literacy curriculum, during the Oct. 24 board meeting. A woman identified only as Ilhan told the board she represented the Somali community and had a "pressing concern" about some books used in third-grade classrooms, including one about two dads and another about a child identified as queer.

"We wholeheartedly respect the importance of affirming LGBTQ identities, but we are troubled by the way these books have been presented to our children," Ilhan said. "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."

Ilhan emphasized that her concerns were not rooted in animosity, and that the parents were not advocating for changes to the school or curriculum.

Another speaker asked for the chance to take their kids out of class during LGBTQ-related activities. "We don't hate anyone," she said. "We don't teach any of that to our kids. All we ask is just to be respected in our religion."

Board Member Sarah Davis, who is married to a woman and has two children, noted at the end of the meeting that she's been open about her identity.

"I'm thinking about my child," she said, appearing to blink back tears. "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."

About the partnership

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota's immigrants and communities of color. Sign up for a free newsletter to receive Sahan's stories in your inbox.