A committee of state lawmakers voted unanimously Monday to seek legislation to make elected school boards more accountable for decisions regarding book challenges.

Given the recent controversies over religious texts in the Davis School District’s school libraries — challenges to the Bible and more recently, the Book of Mormon — the Utah Legislature’s Administrative Rules and General Oversight Committee agreed to seek legislation to further refine state law on “sensitive materials” in schools.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said the decisions to remove or retain challenged books should be made by elected school boards, not appointed review committees.

“There’s only one elected school board and let the elected officials step up to the plate, make the decision and then bear the consequences of that decision,” said Bramble, remarking that the board’s handling of the matter would help ensure “one consistent standard that is the standard of the elected officials, taking the responsibility for their decision.”

A recent decision by a Davis School District review committee to remove the King James version of the Bible from elementary and junior high libraries but retain it in high schools has been emotionally charged and has attracted national attention. The decision is under appeal to the school board.

Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, questioned how a review committee could determine the Bible should not be in Davis District junior high libraries yet another review committee voted to retain “The Freedom Writers Diary” by Erin Gruwell.

Excerpts of the book were projected on a screen in the committee room. “Frankly, I’m putting the excerpts up because I’m embarrassed to read them out loud,” Brammer said.

According to a review of the book by Library Journal published on Amazon, “Gruwell was a first-year high school teacher in Long Beach, California, teaching the “unteachables” (kids that no other teacher wanted to deal with), she discovered that most of her students had not heard of the Holocaust. Shocked, she introduced them to books about tolerance. ... The students were inspired to start keeping diaries of their lives that showed the violence, homelessness, racism, illness and abuse that surrounded them. These student diaries form the basis of this book.”

Under the district’s review process, “one of the committees found that this book had so much literary value, that despite these excerpts, it should be retained for junior high students. Do you feel that that’s appropriate?” he asked Davis School District officials.

Liz Mumford, president of the Davis School District’s Board of Education, said she would not select “The Freedom Writers Diary” for her junior high student but she said it was likely that it was reviewed by a different committee than the committee that reviewed the Bible.

“Both come to the board, ultimately, if there’s an appeal process,” she said.

Brammer continued, “When that appeal comes up there it should be the shortest appeal that you’ve ever seen. I hope that it comes quick and that you reverse this decision as fast as possible. Because if you’re going to allow that type of horrific language before our junior high students, but you’re not going to allow the Bible given the standards that you’ve set, your standards are not being followed or the standards are not working and we’ll help you clarify them. But frankly, this is embarrassing. It’s embarrassing for the state. And it’s embarrassing for the Davis School District.”

Brammer blasted the school district’s review process as “broken.”

Sen. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, was among several committee members who spoke to the cultural, historical, political and religious significance of the Bible.

“I find banning the Bible reprehensible,” Anderegg said.

Monday’s committee was just the start of the Utah Legislature’s study of how school districts are handling challenges to school library books. Its Education Interim Committee’s entire meeting devoted presentations by five school districts and staff of Utah State Board of Education relating to transparency, parental access, and ongoing efforts to implement the “sensitive materials” provision of Utah law.

HB374, sponsored by Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, and passed by the Utah Legislature in 2022, defines “sensitive material” as instructional materials that are pornographic or indecent, colloquially referred to as the “bright line” rule in state code. 

On Friday, Davis School District Superintendent Dan Linford said in a video to the school district community that he recognizes “that this community was founded on many of the principles set forth in the Bible. Many know that I am a person of faith, and I believe the Bible is a sacred text, but it would be inappropriate for me to use my position as superintendent to project my own beliefs or opinions on the decision-making process, which is still underway.”

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Addressing the legislative committee on Monday, Linford said despite media reports to the contrary, the Bible had not been banned from Davis District schools.

“Let me be clear that the Bible is not banned in the Davis School District. Cigarettes, weapons, all kinds of things are banned in the Davis School District. Students can have the Bible at any level and I think we know that the majority of those students that have the Bible, have their own copy and don’t rely on the schools,” he said.

Linford said he agreed “that it is embarrassing that this kind of a decision has made national attention for our district and for our state. We don’t disagree with that. I think myself and many on this panel feel the same way that you do in terms of our admiration for the Bible. But I’m asking for please allow the policy to play out.”

The district’s 15 review committees have reviewed 60 of 101 challenged titles and 41 are in progress. Among the completed reviews, 37 titles were removed, nine were retained at all levels and 14 were retained at some levels. Twenty-four decisions were appealed and of those, eight appeals have been completed.

Since the passage of Utah’s “sensitive materials” law in 2022, Utah’s largest school districts have received dozens of requests for book reviews, some spurred by parents rights organizations such as Utah Parents United and others from concerned individuals.