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September 20, 2014

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Separating Church & State: Is it legal to display religious brochures in public school libraries? | Scales on Censorship

A local church recently asked me to display a brochure about its vacation Bible school in our public school library. I refused because that would violate the separation between church and state. Our principal attends the church, and some of its members have complained to him. Now I’m on the hot seat.

You are absolutely right to refuse to display the pamphlet. I’d expect a public school principal to understand this issue. Check your district’s policies: I bet they prohibit displaying religious promotional materials in school.

Our district has had a rash of book challenges this year, and now the school board wants to narrow our selection policy. I don’t have time to read every title I order for our library, but I feel accountable for what I select. I need help!

An organized group may be instigating these challenges. It sounds as if the school board doesn’t have the courage to let parents know that what a child reads should be between the parent and child. And what about parents who want their kids to read widely and to learn about various cultures and lifestyles? Perhaps some of them will speak up on your behalf. Ask the school board if librarians can help create the new policy. Make sure that everyone understands that you have an obligation to serve all of your students, not just conservative ones. Hang tough. This may blow over.

Our midsize public library circulates loads of audiobooks, but lately, many of them have been challenged. When the local paper interviewed our library board chairman, he boldly declared that “children need to be reading, not listening to books.” Now the board wants to cut our audiobook budget.

I’m appalled by his comment. The library board’s role is to make policy not value judgments. Many families count on recorded books as a shared activity—ask them to appeal to your library board. Also, make sure that your board knows that the Association of Library Service for Children, a division of the American Library Association, publishes an annual list of “Notable Children’s Recordings,” which are selected by a committee of professionals from across the country that evaluates new releases for quality, performance, and relevance to children’s collections. Public libraries need to purchase these items to stay current with the best in children’s recordings.

My son’s high school English teachers have stopped recommending books for summer reading. They’ve had so many challenges to their list, they felt it wasn’t worth the hassle. That seems like the coward’s way out.

Most people, including teenagers, select books that have been recommended to them by teachers, librarians, or peers. It’s too bad that your son’s teachers are caving to what’s most likely a vocal minority. Ask the teachers to make a list of summer reading recommendations for your son. Better yet, solicit support from parents who think it’s important to provide kids with summer reading suggestions—that way, the teachers will hear some positive feedback about their past efforts.

There’s a child who never misses any of our small public library’s weekly storytimes. The problem is, her mother sits nearby and occasionally makes comments while I’m reading, which makes me nervous since she’s challenged some of our books. She’s starting to affect my selections for storytime.

Tell the mother that it’s terrific that she brings her child to storytime, but ask if she can busy herself in another part of the library during the program. You can simply say that sometimes having another adult in the room inhibits the way that kids respond to the story. You might also let her know ahead of time what book you’re planning to read, so she can decide if she wants her child to hear it. Also, offer her a volunteer job, such as shelving books or preparing materials for a special activity. If she becomes more involved in your program, she may see things differently. You are the professional. Do not let her dictate what you read.


Pat Scales is chair of the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. You can send your questions or comments on censorship to her at pscales@bellsouth.net.

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