Reading & Literacy

Why the Bible Is Getting Pulled Off School Bookshelves

By Eesha Pendharkar — December 15, 2022 5 min read
The Bibles are on display during the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., Tuesday, June 14, 2022.
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An unlikely book has been caught in the crosshairs of mass book removal by districts recently, one that is contrary to a Republican-led attempt toward censorship that frequently draws on Christian rhetoric: the Bible.

Three districts across the country took versions of the Bible off shelves of classroom and school libraries for review this school year. All three removed dozens—and in one case, hundreds—of other books as well. The districts said they returned all editions of the Bible to shelves, but other books caught up in the same sweeps are still pending review or have been permanently removed.

The Bible has faced sporadic book challenges for years, according to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. But the complaints often originate as an advocacy tactic to highlight the potential harms of censorship, she said.

Jonathan Friedman, the director of the Free Expression and Education program for PEN America, a free speech organization that tracks book challenges, agreed.

“To our knowledge, objections to the Bible in the last year have occurred as a reaction to efforts to ban so many books,” Friedman said. “In each case where it was banned, it seems to have been inadvertent, and the decision was, to our knowledge, reversed.”

But in one Missouri district, the Bible was removed temporarily to check its compliance with a state law, amid more than 200 other books. That is not common, Caldwell-Stone said, but isn’t surprising given the new trend in mass book bans across the country.

“When you choose censorship as your tool for controlling access to information and controlling individuals’ ability to learn more about various ideas,” she said, “inevitably it’s going to sweep up ideas and materials that you actually agree with.”

Banning the Bible is still censorship

If students want to read the Bible, it should be available in school libraries, Caldwell-Stone said. And so should books about atheism or pieces critiquing the Bible, among other religion-related texts.

“Part of education is critical thinking skills, understanding all the arguments from all points of view and sorting through them and deciding for oneself what one believes or what one wants to think about a particular topic,” she said. “And so I think that should be available to readers despite what one group or an individual thinks of those books.”

Each of the three districts temporarily pulled copies of the Bible for review for different reasons.

Escambia County Public Schools, Florida

In Escambia County public schools, someone complained about the Bible being inappropriate for children, so the book was pulled for review amid more than 100 others that are on a list the district maintains.

According to the complaint form, the Bible was challenged because it “promotes sexism, sex, violence, genocide, slavery, rape, and bestiality. Includes examples of eating children. Causes Religious Trauma Syndrome.”

The person who complained attached excerpts from the Bible to justify each of their allegations.

“That’s exactly the kind of challenge we were used to seeing in the past,” Caldwell-Stone said. “It’s not frequent but that kind of challenge where there’s criticism with the contents of the Bible, in response to an effort to remove other books from the library on the same grounds, is something we’ve seen in the past.”

However, no book should be evaluated on individual excerpts or sentences, according to Kacey Meehan, the Freedom to Read program director for PEN America.

“In all book reviews, the precedent is that you review the book as a whole,” Meehan said. “You don’t look at a page and pull the page with an image or with a line that may have sexual contact or talk about violence.”

Michelle White, a spokesperson for the district, said the book was only briefly out of circulation. “When the Bible was challenged as library material, Escambia County public schools followed its reconsideration policy and placed it in a Restricted Access area during the review process,” she said. “Within two days, the [district] determined that the Florida legislature had already determined that the Bible is an appropriate instructional resource in public schools.”

The district swiftly returned the book to classroom and library shelves. Other books are still pending review.

Keller Independent School District, Texas

The Bible was challenged twice last year for containing inappropriate content, according to an email sent to Education Week by the Keller ISD communications office. The district determined that the book wasn’t inappropriate, and put back on shelves. Friedman said both challenges were retracted.

Then this August, because the district’s Board of Trustees was required by the state to adopt a new local policy about the purchase and review of library books, books that had been challenged over the previous year had to be reviewed again, according to the email.

That’s also when Keller ISD made headlines for removing 41 previously challenged books, including the Bible, from libraries. Principals were directed to remove all books on the list from the library and classrooms within a day, according to a Texas Tribune article that obtained an email from Keller ISD’s executive director of curriculum and instruction to principals.

But according to the district’s statement, “the Bible was one of these books that had been challenged the previous year, so it was reviewed again, and it was determined that the Bible did not contain inappropriate content under these new guidelines either, so it remained in circulation.”

The Keller ISD communications department did not specifically answer a query about whether the Bible, which was on a list of 41 books meant to be permanently removed, was the sole exception to be reviewed and put back into circulation.

But Friedman said, “the district simply reversed their decision on this book, but not the others.”

Wentzville School District, Missouri

The Missouri district pulled 220 titles for review to check compliance with a new state law that banned “any depiction or description of sexually explicit material, which include sexual intercourse, genitalia, or ‘sadomasochistic abuse,’” according to spokesperson Brynne Cramer.

Among these books was Children’s Bible Stories.

But that doesn’t mean the book was unavailable to readers while it was under review, Cramer said.

“Just because one librarian pulled it for us to look at doesn’t mean it was pulled from the libraries,” she said.

The district determined through its review process that Children’s Bible Stories was not in violation of state law, and the book has been returned to shelves, Cramer said.

The district permanently removed 17 other books, however, as a result of the review process.

“[Removing] the Children’s Bible [Stories] or a graphic novel version simply because there’s a fear that it might contain an image that could violate state law is just incredible to me,” said Caldwell-Stone from the ALA. “And it speaks to the heart of mass censorship.”

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