CBLDF has joined the National Coalition Against Censorship on a letter to the board of education in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, reminding administrators that a conservative group’s threat to sue the school over a reading of the children’s book I Am Jazz “is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how the First Amendment applies to public schools.”
Mount Horeb Area School District canceled a reading of Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings’ I Am Jazz after the Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian nonprofit, threatened the district with a lawsuit. I Am Jazz is based on the childhood of Jazz Jennings who was born a boy but transitioned to a girl. The book was being read because a 6-year-old student in the district is undergoing the same transition, and the district was looking for ways to “support gender-variant students and their families” and to help other students understand and accept the change. The district sent a letter about their plans to parents in the community, inviting parents to contact them with concerns (including, no doubt, the opportunity to exempt their children from the program).
Richard Mast, attorney for Liberty Counsel, claims that I Am Jazz “spouts a number of false and inaccurate claims,” and that the district does not have the right to “miseducate children with what essentially amount to propaganda and mistruths.” As NCAC writes, Liberty Counsel argued that the reading “would violate the rights of parents who feel that such a lesson undermines their parental rights and religious beliefs.” The school district cancelled the reading with an official statement that it was allowing “parents the additional time to review the materials we intend to present to the students” and evaluating their feedback before proceeding. Fortunately, the community stood up to the Liberty Counsel by hosting multiple independent readings of the book, and the school district itself unanimously passed measures protecting the rights of transgender students.
On their website, the Liberty Counsel declares that one of its missions is to advance religious freedom, but that appears to be true only for those holding similar evangelical Christian beliefs. The Southern Poverty Law Center has listed the organization as a hate group, in particular for their anti-LGBTQ stance. In their profile of the organization, SPLC writes:
With the expansion of equal rights for LGBT people, especially, the Liberty Counsel has come into their own, working to attempt to ensure that Christians can continue to engage in anti-LGBT discrimination in places of business under the guise of “religious liberty.” Through lawsuits and its annual Awakening conference in Orlando, the Counsel attempts to enforce the idea that Christian beliefs and law trump all other law.
In their official statement regarding the letter, NCAC describes how Liberty Counsel’s lawsuit threat demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the First Amendment and legal precedent:
In a series of relevant decisions, courts have consistently ruled that parents’ rights to freely practice their own religious beliefs are not violated by instructional activities or materials that they might feel conflict with those beliefs. In an analogous case, the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2008 in Parker v. Hurley, “the mere fact that a child is exposed on occasion in public school to a concept offensive to a parent’s religious belief does not inhibit the parent from instructing the child differently…. 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.”
This is the crucial distinction the Liberty Counsel’s letter fails to appreciate: While parents have a general right to direct their children’s upbringing, the courts have held that parents do not have the right to dictate the public school curricula.
NCAC’s letter to the Mount Horeb school board follows in its entirety. In addition to CBLDF, the letter was signed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, American Booksellers for Free Expression, National Council of Teachers of English, Association of American Publishers, PEN American Center, and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.