Republican lawmakers attack Utah school district that banned the Bible for ‘embarrassing’ the state

One legislator said it was accepting “atheism and hedonism” to remove the Bible. Davis School District officials said they just followed the law legislators wrote.

(Tribune file photo) The Bible pictured at the Utah Capitol on Wednesday, January 4, 2017. A review committee in Davis School District determined the religious text should be banned in elementary and middle school libraries. On Monday, June 12, 2023, Utah lawmakers railed the district for that decision.

Republican lawmakers turned their wrath Monday on the Utah school district that has banned the Bible for younger students — calling the decision “reprehensible” and “embarrassing for the state.”

The attacks came during a lengthy and combative interim meeting where Davis School District officials were called to explain the determination on the religious text, which has drawn national attention since it was made public earlier this month.

“You should be ashamed,” said Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove.

“This is offensive,” added Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo.

Rep. Mark Strong, R-Bluffdale, said taking the religious text off shelves of elementary and middle schools in the district was “bogus” and a move toward “accepting the religion of atheism and hedonism.”

The criticisms from the conservative members of the Administrative Rules Committee carried on for most of the 90-minute discussion, while the district’s superintendent and board president tried to explain how the scripture was determined to be inappropriate for children — under the law that the legislators themselves had set up in 2022.

The administrators asked the legislators to wait and let the full process play out, with the Bible ban currently being appealed.

“Our intent is to follow the law,” said Superintendent Dan Linford. “That has been our earnest intent.”

The law, HB374, was spurred by conservative groups that have largely been targeting books about the LGBTQ+ community that they find “inappropriate.” Under it, each district was tasked with setting up a policy for books to be reviewed and to ban any containing “pornographic or indecent” content.

Linford said in creating its policy, Davis mirrored the model provided by the Utah State Board of Education. Parents can submit requests for review in the district if they worry a book contains pornography or sensitive materials. And a review committee made up of parents and staff will be formed by the district to look into the title.

So far, Davis has seen 101 books challenged, Linford said. Of those, 60 of the reviews have been completed — the Bible being the most recent — and 37 books have been removed.

“I’m not aware of a district that has reviewed more titles or removed more titles,” he said.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dr. Daniel R. Linford thanks his supporters after being appointed as Davis School District Board of Education's new superintendent, Wednesday, April 20, 2022.

The Bible challenge then came in December. A parent in Davis frustrated by the process and the books being removed said if other titles can be pulled, then the district should look at the religious text for being “one of the most sex-ridden books around.” They included eight pages citing passages that included bestiality, rape and incest.

The district said it would handle the complaint like any other. A review committee in Davis analyzed the Bible. The members found that it did not violate the law for containing pornography. But a second part of the new code encourages a committee to review if it is age appropriate.

The committee found the Bible was not because it contained “violence or vulgarity” and decided it should only be available for high school students.

Only the King James version of the Bible was removed, as that was the translation noted on the parent challenge. Other versions remain available for students of all ages in Davis School District. Meanwhile, a separate complaint — prompted by the Bible ban — to now review the Book of Mormon is moving forward for review in the district.

And the Bible decision already has seen several appeals by parents who want it to remain in full circulation. So the district’s Board of Education will now look into that and make the final call, possibly returning the text to shelves.

That’s how it’s supposed to work, Linford said.

But the legislators said Monday they felt that the law, as written, should never have allowed for the Bible to be removed and wasn’t intended for that. The scripture, many said, has literary, political and artistic value — which is supposed to be weighed — that they don’t believe was considered by the Davis review committee.

“There is no other book out there that has the same value as the Bible,” said Rep. Strong, citing the text’s use in the political foundations for America and in inspiring art across the world.

He talked about seeing a statue of David, a character in the scripture that slays a giant, when he visited Italy. He felt awe, “even though he’s not dressed, which could be seen as pornographic by some.”

Strong said the Bible has also been the first book from which many people have learned to read.

“The Bible and some of these things are core to us,” he said. “We must stand for these things. … The Bible does have some things that are questionable, but they’re implicit, not explicit. There’s no detail.”

The lawmaker urged the district to look at it as a whole.

Rep. Brammer also questioned how the committee “didn’t find any serious literary value in the Bible?” If that’s the case, he added, “your system is broken. There is no way to get there without a broken system.”

He said the appeal should be the “shortest appeal you’ve ever seen,” and the Bible should be placed back on library shelves quickly. Not doing so, Brammer suggested, is giving in to those who want “to destroy the moral basis of our society.”

“Frankly, this is embarrassing,” he added. “It’s embarrassing for the state, and it’s embarrassing for the school district.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023.

Davis School District is the second largest school district in Utah, sitting just north of Salt Lake City, with a large base of constituents who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Superintendent Linford said he, too, is religious and has “admiration for the Bible”; he supports the text being available.

Brammer then challenged him as to why the Bible was removed but not “The Freedom Writers Diary.” That book — which the 2007 film is based on — is filled with stories by teenagers about their lives. The lawmaker displayed passages from the book on the screen during the meeting Monday that included explicit scenes. The book had been reviewed by a Davis committee and kept in middle schools and high schools.

“I’m putting the excerpts up because I’m frankly embarrassed to read it out loud,” Brammer said.

Reading what his colleague had projected on the wall, Sen. Bramble then pressured Superintendent Linford, asking if he should be forced to read those passages to the room.

“Adults can tell the difference between a religious text, like the Bible, Quran or Torah, even though they depict various acts, relative to pornography,” he said. “Just apply common sense.”

Liz Mumford, president of the Davis Board of Education, said the different conclusions came likely because the texts were reviewed by different committees, and each committee brings different perspectives on the law to the process. (There have to be multiple committees, she added, because of the volume of challenges.)

Lawmakers said Monday that should not be the case with conflicting readings of the law, and the standards should be uniformly enforced.

They now have opened a bill file that would require every decision from a review committee on a book ban go before the full Board of Education of a district for a vote before it can be enacted. That way, the legislators said, the elected leaders of the district can be held accountable for decisions, instead of an anonymous review committee.

Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, also suggested clearing up any “vagueness of the statute” on the definitions for inappropriate books, to help give districts a clearer rubric for what to ban. When the Legislature originally passed the law, he said, he knew there would be challenges like the Bible come up, but he still finds the ban “reprehensible.”

“Davis just happens to be the first,” he said. “But I would expect this to happen across multiple school districts.”

So far, The Salt Lake Tribune has asked the seven largest districts in the state — outside of Davis — if they have had complaints about religious texts, including the Bible and the Book of Mormon. So far, no others have.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Jake Anderegg during a Senate committee meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023.