Does reading fiction that conflicts with your personal religious beliefs constitute an assault on those beliefs, actionable in a court of law?
According to the Associated Press, a Virginia couple has filed in a federal appeals court to overturn a lower court’s decision (Coble v. Lake Norman Charter School, 2020) not to remove a book from a high school curriculum. More specifically, they seek an emergency restraining order to immediately remove the book while the court considers their case.
The couple’s attorney is quoted as saying, “Our position is that a state actor, much less a secondary public school, cannot promote or use materials that explicitly disparage a particular faith tradition.”
The immediately dangerous material in question? Elizabeth Acevedo’s first, multi-award-winning novel in verse, The Poet X. Awards (NOT exhaustive):
- National Book Award Medalist
- Michael L. Printz Award
- Pura Belpre Award for Author
- Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for Fiction
- Golden Kite Award Honor Book
- Walter Award
- Los Angeles Times Book Prize
- Carnegie Medal
- Odyssey Award Honor Book for best audio
- Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award
- ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults selection—Top Ten
- ALA Notable Children’s Book
- YALSA Best Fiction for Reluctant Readers
- New York Times Notable Children’s Books
- Time Magazine Top Ten Books of the Year
- Kirkus Prize Finalist
- Kirkus Best Teen Books of the Year
- School Library Journal Best Books of the Year
- Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year
- Horn Book Fanfare
- Boston Globe best books of the year
- Indies Choice/ABA Young Adult Book of the Year
- Shelf Awareness Best Books of the Year
- New York Public Library Top Ten Best Book for Kids & Best Book for Teens
- Lambda Award Finalist
- CBC Teen Choice Awards Finalist
- New York Times Editors’ Choice
- Entertainment Weekly Best YA Books of the Year
- NPR Best Books of the Year
- Muriel Becker Award, NJ Council of Teachers of English
- Amelia Bloomer Project Top Ten List
- Texas TAYSHAS list Top Ten
Issues of religious hostility in public schools are hardly a new matter. Jennifer L. Bryant provides a detailed account of public school teachers’ free speech rights in her article “Talking ‘Religious, Superstitious Nonsense’ in the Classroom: When Do Teachers’ Disparaging Comments About Religion Run Afoul of the Establishment Clause?” This article is also quoted in United States District Judge Max O. Cogburn, Jr.’s decision in the Coble case.
She begins by citing a California student’s 2007 lawsuit against his history teacher (Farnan v. Capistrano Unified School District), claiming he made antireligious comments during class, stating that the teacher “violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by ‘demonstrating hostility towards religion’ and ‘favoring irreligion over religion.’” According to Bryant, “never before had a student sued his teacher for making incendiary statements about religion during class.”
Although the court found that one of his comments was “impermissibly hostile to religion,” referring to creationism as “‘religious, superstitious nonsense,’” he nonetheless was granted immunity because, as there was no legal precedent, the teacher can’t have known he was violating the Establishment Clause. Flimsy protection, at best, and essentially side-stepping the issue.
As Bryant argues, there is a clear need to resolve this murky issue so that teachers won’t begin every classroom discussion in fear of being sued, or worse, avoid controversial, nuanced, complex learning experiences. Potentially, one result of the Farnan case is that “students’ ability to have a full, rich educational experience has been compromised.”
The next safe step for teachers would seem to be only speaking positively about all religions. However, Bryant writes that previous cases reveal
“devising a curriculum that would satisfy the demands of all faiths in a religiously pluralistic society would surely be an impossible task. It would violate the Establishment Clause ‘to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma.’”
Just ask any librarian. We do not endorse the values of materials simply by making information available. We do, however, strive to the best of our abilities to ensure that materials provided are free from unjust stereotypes and mis/disinformation that is harmful, degrading, or discriminatory. Same for classroom teachers.
More pertinent to the Coble case is this quotation from Parker v. Hurley (2008):
“‘Public schools are not obliged to shield individual students from ideas which potentially are religiously offensive, particularly when the school imposes no requirement that the student agree with or affirm those ideas, or even participate in discussions about them.’”
Indeed, to do so would effectively shut down education.
The Coble’s main claim is that The Poet X “has the primary effect of advancing the ‘religion’ of ‘alternative beliefs,’ while being hostile toward Christianity, especially Catholicism. [It] launches a ‘frontal assault on Christian beliefs and values.’” They demanded the book be removed from the curriculum, or they would file suit.
While teachers did provide the Coble’s son with an alternative assignment, Lake Norman Charter Superintendent Shannon Stein defended teachers in an email to OIF Assistant Director Kristin Pekoll, declaring that the district would not give in to the parents’ request to remove the book:
“Our English teachers are professionals and experts in their fields. We trust their judgment, knowing they understand and consider their students’ stage of development and level of maturity. When studying a selection with their students, our teachers situate the text within social and historical context to allow our students a window into another’s perspective which in turn allows them to better understand their own identity in relation to the world.”
The District Court’s opinion in this particular case explains that the First Amendment does not merely prevent the state from promoting a particular religion, but also seeks to prevent the state from publicly disparaging religion. In other words, the state is to neither endorse nor denigrate religion. In the Coble case, the defendants failed to prove that the book was chosen specifically for an antireligious message. Because it hadn’t been.
The book exposes “students to the attitudes and outlooks of an important American subculture” and reveals a main character questioning and doubting, which is hardly anything new, even in the Bible (Cogburn). In one particularly poignant passage, Xiomara ponders the role of women in the Bible:
“When the only girl I’m supposed to be was an impregnated virgin who was probably scared shitless. When I’m told fear and fire are all this life will hold for me. When I look around the church and none of the depictions of angels or Jesus or Mary, not one of the disciples look like me: morenita and big and angry. When I’m told to have faith in the father the son in men and men are the first ones to make me feel so small. That’s when I feel like a fake.”
I also find it ironic and a bit disturbing that the parents choose to ignore larger parts of the narrative about the way Xiomara is treated by boys and men in her life:
“I should be used to it. I shouldn’t get so angry when boys--and sometimes grown-ass men-- talk to me however they want, think they can grab themselves or rub against me or make all kinds of offers. But I’m never used to it. [...] It simply never stops.”
Her own mother treats her differently from her twin brother simply because she is female, making her clean and accusing her of being a whore for trying to use tampons. So no, the main point of the book is not to discredit Catholicism but to reveal a multitude of ways that Xiomara’s world constricts her self-worth, leading her to turn to poetry and the spoken word as a way to reclaim herself.
United States District Judge Max O. Cogburn Jr. ultimately reasons that The Poet X does not attempt to force a negative view on Catholicism on the reader; rather, religion plays a more anthropological role, “prompted by the frustrating confrontation of adolescents with parents, sexual desire, religious doubt, and loneliness.”
Although perhaps unbeknownst to him, Judge Cogburn explains here with marked conciseness the very reason Young Adult literature is needed: young people seek outlets as they encounter these frustrating confrontations, books appearing before judges for merely affirming their own journeys to self-discovery, a process that does not belong in a courtroom.
One problematic part of the opinion is Judge Cogburn’s statement that “the Court is troubled by Defendants’ decision to teach a book that is so controversial that they have an established opt-out procedure in place to deal with ‘several students who have chosen not to read The Poet X.’ […] Defendants have a vital responsibility to ensure that their school is not a divisive environment.”
The open exchange of differing ideas in a classroom is not so insidious as the word “divisive” suggests.
The landmark case Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico (1982) “identified a First Amendment right for students to be exposed to a diverse array of ideas, explaining that ‘such access to ideas prepares students for active and effective participation in the pluralistic, often contentious society in which they will soon be adult members.’”Bryant
I don’t know if the judge or the parents read the entire book, but by the end, Xiomara has taken steps to make peace with her mother. Although she does not seamlessly adopt her mother’s faith as her own (as many people don’t), her priest has begun counseling sessions with them. Father Sean even tells Xiomara, “open and honest dialogue is good for growth.” Unsurprisingly, the Coble parents could not prove that this message was indeed inflicting harm on their son.
Jamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media working as the Upper School Librarian and journalism/newspaper teacher at Christ Church Episcopal School in Greenville, SC. She is the recipient of the 2021 Media Literacy Teacher Award from the National Association for Media Literacy Education.