In one school district, the Bible and the Book of Mormon were flagged for “sensitive materials review.”
Public schools are closed for the summer in Utah, leaving their libraries quieter than usual. But the books on their shelves are now the subject of a skirmish — one that is distinct from many other culture clashes over education in the United States.
In this case, the titles in question are the Bible and the Book of Mormon.
On Friday, a person filed a complaint with the Davis School District, just north of Salt Lake City, asking that the Book of Mormon, a religious text for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, be removed from its libraries. Utah is home to the world headquarters of the church and has the nation’s highest concentration of members of that faith.
That request echoed one in December challenging the King James Version of the Bible, which is held sacred by members of the church and Christians generally. Both complaints followed the passage of state legislation prohibiting “pornographic or indecent” materials in public school settings. The measure, titled Sensitive Materials in Schools, was signed into law in March 2022.
The December challenge against the Bible, which was reported by The Salt Lake Tribune, dripped with sarcasm.
“I thank the Utah Legislature and Utah Parents United for making this bad faith process so much easier and way more efficient,” wrote the complainant, whose name was redacted in a document shared by The Tribune.
“Now we can all ban books and you don’t even need to read them or be accurate about it,” the complainant added, noting that the Bible contained descriptions of incest, prostitution, rape and infanticide.
Last month, a Davis district committee decided that the Bible should remain available in high school libraries, but not for younger grades. (Someone has since filed an appeal to keep it in circulation for all students.) Christopher Williams, a spokesman for the Davis School District, did not share details about the newer complaint against the Book of Mormon but said the district would “treat this request just like any other request.”
Brooke Stephens, the curriculum director for Utah Parents United, which supported the state’s bill, said the complaints against religious texts were “trying to minimize the real concerns of parents.”
Ms. Stephens has three children in the district and has challenged several books there — not because they featured racially diverse characters or L.G.B.T.Q. themes, she said, but because they contained sexually explicit content.
She added that the school libraries had multiple books with mature imagery far exceeding what is described in the Bible. “Do you know how many other books you’re going to have to remove just for vulgarity and violence,” she said, “if this is your new baseline?”
Fights over library books have caused bitter rifts in school districts across the United States, and those rifts have been amplified by social media and political campaigns. The battles have often become proxies for broader discussions about issues like freedom of speech, gender identity and racial inequality.
Utah is not the first state where the Bible has been subject to review. Similar complaints have been filed in Texas, Florida and Missouri, according to Education Week.
Across the United States, a vast majority of books that have drawn complaints were by or about L.G.B.T.Q. people or people of color, a March report from the American Library Association found.
It also found that efforts to ban books nearly doubled in 2022 over the previous year.
Conservative groups, including organizations like Moms for Liberty and Utah Parents United, have pushed for many book removals or lobbied for new removal policies.
And increasingly, challenges are being filed against multiple books at once, whereas in the past, libraries more frequently received complaints about a single title, the American Library Association found. That suggested that political campaigning was behind the trend, said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.
The complaints about religious texts in Utah, she said, were “certainly a kind of advocacy that might encourage both school boards and state legislators to think more carefully about what they’re doing.”
“It highlights the fact that censorship is not the answer — that any book is vulnerable to censorship,” she added. “And that’s not what we should want in this country.”
Ken Ivory, the Republican state representative who sponsored last year’s bill, told The Tribune in March that the Bible complaint amounted to “antics that drain school resources.”
But in a statement on Friday, he signaled trust in the district’s review process.
The King James Version of the Bible “is a challenging read for elementary or middle school children on their own,” he said. “Traditionally, in America, the Bible is best taught, and best understood, in the home, and around the hearth, as a family.”
According to the policy of the Davis School District, which cites the state legislation from last year, parents — as well as students and staff — can request that school libraries remove “sensitive” books or other materials.
A committee, which includes district employees and parents, then reviews the materials to determine whether they could be considered pornographic, indecent or inappropriate because of violence or vulgarity. This can take weeks or months.
A record of complaints on the district website lists about a hundred books that have been challenged there since the law was passed. Committees have reached decisions on dozens of them, with mixed results: According to the website, some books, such as “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen, were ultimately removed from the shelves. Others remained, including “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold.
Dozens more, including the Book of Mormon, are still under review.