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Davis district sued over flap about lesbian mothers book

Published November 14, 2012 9:28 am

Education • A Kaysville mother says her kids' constitutional rights were violated.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A Kaysville parent sued the Davis School District on Tuesday, alleging her children's First Amendment rights were violated by a school committee's decision earlier this year to remove a book about lesbian mothers from shelves of elementary libraries.

Students can read the picture book, In Our Mothers' House, by Patricia Polacco, only if they have a permission slip signed by parents. The policy decision brought applause from parents who felt the story wasn't appropriate for young children and criticism from opponents who believed it was unjustified censorship and hurtful to gay and lesbian families.

Tina Weber, who has three children in the Davis district, is named as the lead — and so far only — adult plaintiff in the class-action complaint filed in Salt Lake City's federal court against the district.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah is representing Weber on the case. The Utah Library Association, Utah Pride Center, Ogden OUTreach Resource Center, Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) are also lending support, said John Mejia, legal director for the ACLU of Utah.

"Students have the right to access books in their library free from the administration's discrimination based on the viewpoint of those books," Mejia said. "Ultimately, we feel this is a question of interpreting the law. The school district has claimed that ... there's a Utah statute that schools can't advocate homosexuality under the health curriculum. The school has taken a public position that the libraries are an extension of the curriculum, and therefore this law would apply to make this book run afoul of the law. We question that interpretation of the law."

Davis spokesman Chris Williams said Tuesday that the district hadn't yet been served with the lawsuit, but added that it stands by the decision to require children to get a permission slip to check out the book.

"I would say the district still feels comfortable with the process it undertook and at no time has any parent's rights been curtailed," Williams said. "Parents still have the opportunity to have their children read the book."

The lawsuit is the latest development in the district's saga involving In Our Mothers' House, a picture book about a lesbian couple raising children that was removed from the shelves of grade-school libraries in Davis County last spring after parents voiced concerns about the story's suitability.

The decision to keep the book behind the counter, accessible to children with a permission slip, followed an April 30 meeting during which a seven-member committee determined the book didn't align with district curriculum standards. The committee, comprised of teachers, administrators and parents, voted 6-1 to keep the book off shelves, with Bountiful High librarian Trudena Fager casting the dissenting vote.

Williams said previously the panel's decision was based on a state law that bars school curriculum from advocating homosexuality. Committee members also determined the book was not age-appropriate. The dispute bubbled up in January, when the mother of a kindergartner at Windridge Elementary in Kaysville became upset when her child brought the book home. The mother and her husband took their concerns to elementary school officials, according to Williams.

A committee at the school level decided to move the title — recommended for pupils in kindergarten through second grade — to a section for grades 3 to 6 after determining the book was better suited for older readers, Williams said. That didn't appease the kindergartner's parents, who gathered 25 signatures on a petition to move the discussion to the district level.

The district committee voted in April to place the book behind the counter. Parents who signed the petition were notified of the move in May.

Williams said the book was purchased in part because a student who attended Windridge has two mothers and librarians wanted to foster inclusion.

Weber, the lawsuit's plaintiff, said she was disturbed to learn that the book's accessibility had been limited. After hearing about the controversy, she checked out the book to read to her 6-year-old, who was a kindergartner at Windridge last year.

"It's just a sweet story about a mixed family that learns to love each other," said Weber, who contacted the ACLU to see if she could help make a case against the district. Her children are also named as plaintiffs.

"As a parent, I believe that it's my role to help them understand certain issues and explain to them our particular values and stances on things," she said. "I don't believe it's for anybody else to tell me how to raise my family. I would just hope to see the book get back on the shelf so all children have access to it."

Mejia said the suit asks the court to order copies of the book be returned to shelves, order a permanent injunction that would bar schools from restricting books based on an interpretation of homosexual themes and make declaratory judgments stating the school district violated students' First Amendment rights in limiting access to the book and that the school erred in citing a Utah statute prohibiting homosexuality in curriculum as the reason to limit access to the book. The plaintiffs also seek $1 in damages from the district.

The ACLU and Davis School District had conversations about the book before the lawsuit. Williams said he thought the two sides were working toward common ground on the issue.

"My impression is at least we felt good about the meetings," Williams said of discussions between the ACLU and the district. "Apparently they didn't."

mrogers@sltrib.com

Twitter: @mrogers Online

To read the lawsuit and the Davis School District's policy on how to file a complaint about a book in a school library, visit http://www.sltrib.com.