“In Our Mothers’ House” Restricted Access in Utah School District

by Justin Brown

With the President’s recent open approval of same-sex marriage; a federal appeals court striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (claiming it unconstitutional); the success of Life with Archie #16, featuring the marriage of a gay character; and Marvel and DC’s inclusion of prominent storylines about gay characters, one may surmise it is easy for everyone to access constitutionally-protected LGBT materials. This is not the case, as students in a school district north of Salt Lake City will have to get parental permission before checking out a book about a lesbian couple raising a family, according to a recent article on the Huffington Post.

The book In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco is at the center of these prohibitive policies due to a complaint by the mother of a student who checked out the book, which features a family led by a lesbian couple and how they use love to give them the strength to overcome intolerance.

From the Huffington Post article by Jennifer Dolner:

Students in a Utah school district will need permission from their parents to read a book about a lesbian couple raising a family following the decision by a special committee to keep it behind library counters instead of on bookshelves.

The book In Our Mothers’ House, by Patricia Polacco, became the subject of controversy in January when the mother of a student who brought the book home complained to the school.

‘The book is still in the library and children can still have access to the book as long as they have written permission from their parents,’ said Chris Williams, a spokesman for the Davis School District, which covers an area north of Salt Lake City.

Dolner goes on to relate that the book has been challenged in libraries around the country:

The Davis district is not the first place parents have raised concerns about the book, which was published in 2009. A 2011 report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas shows the book was banned in several schools in that state.

Williams said a school-level committee made up of teachers, administrators and parents decided that access to In Our Mothers’ House should be restricted to students in grades 3 through 6. When that didn’t satisfy the parent, a district committee was petitioned to address the issue.

In late April, the district committee voted 6-1 that the book could stay in the collection, but should be kept behind the counter, instead of on shelves. A letter informing parents of the decision was sent out in May.

Williams said in the article that what’s objectionable to one person is not to another. Thusly, a person’s objection to legal material (that is not defined as offensive or profane by law) has led to a subjective decision to restrict access to said material. These policies, therefore, are based on personal ideologies, not law, and are in violation of a national canon of free expression.

Similar outcries and boycotts have been made by special interest groups, such as One Million Moms, against the comic industry for its depiction of gay characters. In February, One Million Moms lobbied to have an Archie comic removed from shelves and encouraged people to boycott the comic.

From a CBLDF article by Betsy Gomez:

One Million Moms — a division of the American Family Association, a conservative non-profit organization that ‘promotes traditional family values’ — recently made news over their boycott of retailer JC Penney over hiring lesbian TV host Ellen DeGeneres as a spokesperson. They are in the news again with recent reports that they will be boycotting Toys ‘R’ Us over the display and sale of Life with Archie #16, which features the marriage of openly gay character Kevin Keller.

Despite the group’s efforts, the comic stayed on the shelves and even sold out.

More recently, the group has taken similar actions against Marvel’s Astonishing X-men #51, featuring the marriage of the mutant Northstar to his same-sex partner, and DC’s “outing” of the Green Lantern, according to an ICv2.com article.

From the ICv2 article:

American Family Association ‘project’ One Million Moms has added Marvel and DC to the list of comic publishers that it opposes because of their inclusion of gay characters. The group argues that the companies ‘want to indoctrate [sic] impressionable young minds by placing these gay characters on pedestals in a positive light.’ The group was reacting to the announcement by Marvel that its character Northstar would marry his same sex partner in Astonishing X-Men #51 (see A Gay Wedding for Marvel). DC announced this week that a major, iconic DC character would be revealed as gay next month (see DC Character to Come Out). ‘These companies are heavily influencing our youth by using children’s superheroes to desensitize and brainwash them in thinking that a gay lifestyle choice is normal and desirable,’ the group said.”

Though One Million Moms public objections are constitutionally protected speech, banning comics and books (as in the case of Texas schools banning In Our Mothers’ House) due to moral, political or religious ideologies violate these First Amendment rights.

From the First Amendment Center’s website FAQs concerning speech, schools and books:

School officials cannot pull books off library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas in those books. In Board of Education v. Pico, the Supreme Court ruled that school officials in New York violated the First Amendment by removing several books from junior high school library shelves for being too controversial.

The Court said the First Amendment protects students’ right to receive information and ideas and that the principal place for such information is the library.

However, in Pico, the Supreme Court also said school officials could remove books from library shelves if they were ‘pervasively vulgar.’ The Court noted that its decision did not involve school officials’ control over the curriculum or even the acquisition of books for school libraries.
School districts should develop policies on how to handle challenges to books, and how to ensure that decisions regarding removal of books from the library or the curriculum respect the Constitution and reflect sound educational policy. School officials must also ensure that a book is not removed simply because a concerned parent or special-interest group dislikes its content.”

Visit the non-profit organization First Amendment Center’s website for more information.

LGBT publications, from books to comics, are often challenged, banned or subject to restrictive access policies in libraries. These materials are legal, non-obscene, and protected speech, but they often suffer the consequences of personal, religious, and moral dogmas that infringe on free speech and free access.

Please help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work and reporting on issues such as this by making a donation or becoming a member of the CBLDF!

Justin Brown is a journalism graduate of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania.