Can a public school have Christian books in its library? Are religious books coming under fire? The latest story comes from Temecula, California. But religious activists have worried for generations that public schools have become aggressive book-burners.
In the current case, the Pacific Justice Institute has accused Temecula’s River Springs Charter School—apparently one of three schools in the Springs Charter School network—of anti-Christian bias. A parent complained to PJI that the school library had purged any book with a Christian bent. According to a report in Christian News, the parent told PJI that the librarian had been told to get rid of religious books. As conservative commentator Todd Starnes tells the story, the school librarian was instructed to remove “all books with a Christian message, authored by Christians, or published by a Christian publishing company.”
As Starnes concluded darkly,
The way I see it – book banning is just one step away from book burning. And I don’t mean to pour gasoline on the fire, but we all know what regime did that.
When the conservative activist group complained, the superintendent, Kathleen Hermsmeyer, responded that the school did not permit “sectarian materials on our state-authorized lending shelves.”
This episode reminds me of an extraordinary rumor I stumbled across in my research for my upcoming book on conservatism in twentieth-century American education. Investigating the 1974 school blow-up in Kanawha County, West Virginia, I found one conservative activist who insisted that the school district had recently removed all the Bibles from the schools. Even more shocking, this conservative reported that the secularizing zealots in charge of the public schools had dumped the Bibles unceremoniously in a dumpster. When pressed, this activist could not provide details or evidence for his story. He said he had heard it from another conservative leader.
But most important, the story seemed true and likely to him. As a religious conservative, he thought it was believable that a public school leader would purge the school of Bibles. And other conservatives at the time agreed.
We could take it even further back. In the 1925 Scopes Trial, anti-evolution celebrity William Jennings Bryan argued that public schools must ban evolution, since they already banned the Bible. That kind of argument has a good amount of gut political appeal. But it has one glaring problem: It just wasn’t true. In fact, as I noted in my 1920s book, Tennessee had actually passed a mandatory Bible-reading law in 1915. But as far as I could tell, no defender of evolution ever called Bryan on his mistake. On both sides, school activists in the past have believed that religious books had been kicked out of public schools.
Today’s story from California is more credible. In this case, the school leader admitted that the policy had been put into effect. Nevertheless, to this observer, it seems the case from Temecula will be another tempest in a teapot. The Pacific Justice Institute likely sniffed an easy win, since of course public schools are not under any legal compulsion to remove all Christian reading materials from their libraries. Indeed, the US Supreme Court has been very clear that public schools can and should teach about religions.
As Justice Tom Clark wrote in the landmark 1963 Abington v. Schempp decision, “Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.” Indeed, Clark had just specified that public schools must not exclude religion from public schools, “in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion.”
So it seems to me that Superintendent Hermsmeyer has indeed blundered. In a publicly funded school, there is absolutely no constitutional mandate to remove sectarian reading materials. The school itself must not preach any religion, but the library can and should be a place where students may encounter religious ideas.