Utah school board reverses Bible ban and calls out lawmakers who attacked the district

Members of the Davis School District’s school board voted to return the religious text to library shelves for students of all ages after controversy over the decision.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune)The Bible is read aloud at the Utah Capitol, Monday, Nov. 25, 2013. The Bible was been banned at elementary and middle schools in the Davis School District north of Salt Lake City in May 2023, after a review committee decided it wasn't age appropriate "due to vulgarity or violence." It was returned to shelves for all student with a vote by the district's school board on Tuesday, June 20, 2023.

The Utah school district that drew national headlines for banning the Bible has now reversed that decision.

With a unanimous vote late Tuesday afternoon, members of Davis School District’s Board of Education moved to return the religious text to library shelves for students of all ages.

The highly anticipated reversal comes about one month after a review committee of staff and parents appointed by the district was initially determined that the Bible contained “vulgarity or violence” and should have access limited to just high schools.

“There will be some who will disagree with the vote tonight, as there are some who disagreed with the committee,” said school board President Liz Mumford on the motion to the restore the scriptures. But, she suggested, “it’s a process that played out fairly.”

As the second largest school district in Utah, which sits just north of Salt Lake City in a strongly Latter-day Saint community, Davis has become ground zero in the battle over books in recent months. That came to a head in March, when the parent challenge of the Bible became public.

The requester noted in their challenge, first filed in December, that they’d become frustrated by the other titles that had been removed under a state law passed in 2022 banning what some have called inappropriate books. That measure was pushed forward by conservative groups that have largely been targeting works about the LGBTQ+ community.

If those books were being removed, the parent said the Bible should be, too, for containing scenes of incest, bestiality and rape in the King James edition.

Davis School District assigned their complaint to a review committee to analyze, as required by the new law. Those individuals found it did not violate the law for “pornographic or indecent” materials, which would mean it would need to be removed immediately from all schools under what’s called a “bright line” rule.

But the committee did find under the law that the book was not appropriate for younger students, and decided it should only be accessible for upper grade levels. That determination was swiftly met by 70 appeals filed by parents and community members challenging the restriction.

Those appeals required a review and vote by the district’s full Board of Education.

“Democracy is messy,” said board member Kristen Hogan before the vote Tuesday, “and I hope for more understanding and grace for everyone involved on all sides of this issue moving forward.”

A few in the audience clapped when the vote was made. Some had spoken during the public comment period to thank the school board for acting professionally, despite extreme pressure around the decision.

The district was publicly pilloried last week by Republican state lawmakers who called the initial restrictions on the Bible “bogus,” “reprehensible” and a move toward “accepting the religion of atheism and hedonism.” One questioned why the district removed the Bible but kept another title he disagreed with for containing explicit content and suggested maybe Davis could be charged as an “accessory to the distribution of pornography to minors.”

“Frankly, this is embarrassing,” said Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove. “It’s embarrassing for the state, and it’s embarrassing for the school district.”

Brammer told district officials that their review of the Bible should be the “shortest appeal you’ve ever seen” and urged them to restore the text quickly.

Those attacks were briefly addressed by some board members Tuesday, who continued to say that they have only been acting, in their reviews of books, according to the law passed by legislators.

“I’m sorry that those who are in top leadership positions treated us this way,” said board member Derek Lamb. “I thought we were all working together. They will all get a call from me.”

Board member John Robison also said that it wasn’t some “rogue committee” — which Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan and the lawmaker who drafted the book law, initially called the group — that made the call to limit access to the Bible. The committee was described in the law and enacted by the district to review challenged titles for age appropriateness, as the one in Davis did in this case.

“These are wonderful people, both staff members and parents, who are trying to do the very best we could to make sure we follow the law,” he said.

Another member noted the board has received threats over the decision. One simply said: “We have complied with this law.”

Since the committee’s May 22 decision to limit access to the Bible was made, the district’s Superintendent Dan Linford has continued to ask both the Davis community and lawmakers with questions to allow the full process with the religious text to play out, including having the appeal come before the full board.

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

Linford didn’t speak Tuesday to the board’s vote, but he sat at the front of the room nodding his head as board members spoke.

The district also released a statement saying that its policy was never “intentionally manipulated to undermine Utah’s sensitive materials law.” It said the process played out as it was supposed to. And it noted reviews have been conducted on 60 challenged books, with 37 removed.

“As with any new policy, the district’s library review process will likely require some revisions, but the Davis School District stands by the process currently in place,” the statement noted. “The committee-based process is thoughtful, methodical, respectful of varying perspectives, and compliant with Utah law. It allows for appeals to be considered when a committee’s decision seems to be at odds with community values.”

With the Bible appeals, the statement wrote, the board determined “that The Bible has significant, serious value for minors which outweighs the violent or vulgar content it contains.” And so it will be returned to the seven or eight elementary and middle schools it was temporarily removed from.

If a book isn’t determined to violate the “bright line” rule for pornographic content, it can be read as a whole, which Davis said it has done with the Bible and why it was restored.

Several members of the Board of Education said Tuesday that the Bible is personally important to them, and they are glad to see it on shelves again.

“It is my firm opinion that the King James Version of the Bible is a historically significant, very important book of scripture with deep spiritual meaning for many people,” said Brigit Gerrard, the board’s vice president.

Hogan added: “Clearly the Bible has literary and artistic value for minors. Personally, I believe it is a sacred text.”

But even with their beliefs, they said, the Bible was rightly reviewed. It also doesn’t mean the process is perfect, Mumford said. And the board is open to refinements.

She noted that she’s been on the school board for nearly seven years and worked through a lot of challenges over that time, with school closures, removing insensitive mascots and working to improve after the U.S. Department of Justice determined in 2021 that there has been widespread racism within the district.

One resident noted that federal investigation in her public comment about books. If the Bible is returned, she said she’d also like “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison to be put back on shelves. That Nobel Prize-winning novel tells the story of a young Black girl growing up in America and seeing the privileges of her white peers. It was banned in all Davis schools under the “bright line” in November after it was challenged for containing explicit scenes.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) These books have been frequently challenged in Utah school districts

The resident said she was one of five community members to appeal that decision, but it was not restored.

“I think in regards to the Davis district’s recent DOJ … warnings that to remove a book right now that could appeal to a lot of Black students is detrimental to their well-being,” she said.

Allison Farmer, a librarian at an elementary school in Davis School District, similarly said she hates to see books challenged. And she wishes there were more advocates for the other titles being banned, like there has been with the Bible.

With its vote Tuesday, the board concludes the controversial debate around the Bible. But it has since received two requests for review of the Book of Mormon, which the requesters say contains physical and sexual violence. That complaint is currently being reviewed by a committee.