Utah lawmaker who wrote law that led to school district Bible ban now wants ‘all instructional materials’ reviewed

Rep. Ken Ivory initially called the parent’s request to remove the religious text from Davis School District “very unfortunate.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. Ivory sponsored a law to ban "pornographic or indecent" books from school libraries. He was initially opposed to his measure being used to ban the Bible, but now says he supports the religious text being removed from elementary and middle schools in Davis School District.

After previously calling a parent’s challenge of the Bible a “mockery” and a political stunt, the Utah legislator who wrote the law the parent used to request its removal now says he agrees with a district’s decision to ban the religious text from elementary and middle schools.

In a public statement reversing course that was posted to his Facebook page Thursday night, Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, said the book is a “challenging read” for younger kids. And he feels it’s best if they read it at home.

“Traditionally, in America, the Bible is best taught, and best understood, in the home, and around the hearth, as a family,” he said.

Ivory released a second statement later Friday, repeating that point and saying that the review of the Bible should also prompt school districts across the state to “immediately and thoroughly review and make a publicly available determination of the age appropriateness of all instructional materials.”

It’s unclear how that would be done in practical terms, given the scope of such a review would be massive, including every worksheet, assignment or book handed out to students. State lawmakers have previously tried to mandate public approval of all curriculum, and those efforts have failed to pass the full legislative body.

Leaders in the Utah Senate have not had a chance to discuss or review Ivory’s proposal, said Senate spokesperson Aundrea Peterson, “though they want to ensure only age-appropriate information and materials are in schools.”

Ivory’s law banning “pornographic or indecent” books from schools took effect in 2022, following outcry from conservative groups about books they found inappropriate — which have largely centered on texts about the LGBTQ+ community.

In December, a parent in Davis School District said they became frustrated with the books that were being removed by those right-leaning efforts, specifically calling out Utah Parents United. So they challenged the King James Version of the Bible, writing in a complaint that it was time to take off the shelves “one of the most sex-ridden books around.”

“You’ll no doubt find that the Bible, under Utah Code Ann. § 76-10-1227, has ‘no serious values for minors’ because it’s pornographic by our new definition,” the parent wrote.

When that request became public in March — and drew national attention — Ivory said he opposed his measure being used to ban the Bible, calling it a misreading of the intent, a waste of time and an attack on religion in a state that’s home to the worldwide headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The books Ivory said he was worried about in drafting the measure included graphic novels with drawings that legislative attorneys advised him he couldn’t show in public meetings because “they would violate state and federal obscenity laws.” That includes “Gender Queer,” a novel about the author’s journey of self-identity that has some scenes of illustrated figures engaging in sexual conduct.

“There was a purpose to the bill and this kind of stuff, it’s very unfortunate,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune about the Bible complaint at the time.

Ivory said then that he did not see the parent’s challenge as a serious request. He suggested: “For people to minimize that and to make a mockery of it is very sad.”

He did not respond to a call from The Tribune on Friday for further comment on his statement and what changed his mind.

Based on the code he wrote, a book is indecent for school libraries if it includes explicit sexual arousal, stimulation, masturbation, intercourse, sodomy or fondling. According to state attorneys, material doesn’t have to be “taken as a whole” in those situations or left on the shelf during a review. If there is a scene involving any of those acts, it should be immediately removed.

A book committee in Davis School District reviewed the parent’s complaint of the Bible — which included eight pages where they cited sex and violence depicted in the book — and determined this week that the text would stay on the shelf in high schools, saying it did not violate that law.

But it will be taken out of elementary and middle schools for containing “vulgarity or violence.” A spokesperson for the district said he believes there were seven or eight schools that had copies of the King James Version of the Bible where the book would be removed.

But because only the King James Version was challenged, other translations of the Bible will remain. Spokesperson Christopher Williams confirmed to The Tribune that at one junior high and two elementary schools there are other versions that will stay.

As of Friday, though, Williams said, a patron had filed a challenge over the Book of Mormon, so that will now be reviewed as well.

And already the review committee’s decision to remove the Bible for younger kids has been appealed by another parent, who wants the Bible to remain on the shelves for students of all ages, according to the district.

To handle that appeal, the district will now form a committee consisting of three members of Davis School District’s Board of Education. They will review the original complaint and the appeal and make a recommendation to the full board to vote on.

Ivory had previously said he felt the review of the Bible by a committee would “drain school resources.” Since his law was passed, Utah schools have received hundreds of requests for removal. School districts told lawmakers in October that it had become a strain on staff.

But in his post Thursday, Ivory said the committee functioned as it was supposed to with the Bible request.

His law, he wrote, was not meant to ban books but rather to help districts weigh which titles are appropriate for which age groups. And that’s why he said he supports limiting the Bible to the older grades. In his second statement, he called it “an important precedent.”

“Our thanks go out to the Davis School District for carefully reviewing and publicly determining the age appropriateness of the materials in the district,” he wrote. “With this determination, the Davis School District has now set the floor for the standard by which age appropriate, sensitive, obscene, and indecent materials must immediately be reviewed, and if determined to not be age appropriate, removed from all schools in the Davis District and throughout the state!”

Utah Parents United, the group that has been pushing for books to be removed and that was called out by the parent requesting the Bible be banned, responded Friday, saying it agrees with the review committee’s decision that the religious text is “not sexually explicit and is age-appropriate for high school students.”

The group also said the parent who filed the request “was clearly doing so in an attempt to undermine parents who are working diligently to protect children from harmful stimulants in schools.”

And the group stood behind its work, saying: “Parents have challenged books that have a much higher level of vulgarity and violence than the Bible.”