Archives For In Our Mothers’ House

Meanwhile, outside the walls of PantheaCon, I have been busy tending the Wild Hunt’s hearth fires and watching the news….

The sheer number of stories describing the intersection of faith and public education has been overwhelming in recent weeks.  In fact, Americans United (AU) believes that 2013 will be a “pivotal year for church-state separation.”  According to AU, the country’s increasing religious diversity and the recent failures of evangelical Christian politics are fueling the fight to force religion back into public schools.

Since January, five states already have anti-evolution bills “in play” including, Missouri, Montana, Colorado, Oklahoma and Indiana.  AU writer Simon Brown remarked, “The mantra of Indiana state Sen. Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn) seems to be:  ‘Darn the Constitution, full speed ahead!’”

Just last week, the ACLU of Ohio filed a lawsuit against the Jackson City School District for refusing to remove a portrait of Jesus from Jackson Middle School. The School Board’s justification for non-compliance was that the portrait was a gift.  However, there’s that darn Constitution again. Now, the Jackson City School Board is being sued.

Jackson Middle School

Portrait Hanging in Jackson Middle School

There are similar cases across the country. Whether it’s Creationism, school prayer, religious displays or school vouchers, the challenges continue. As such, it is very easy to get caught up in the contentious discourse surrounding these cases.  From a media perspective, conflicts are considered more “ sell-able” because they stir emotions and keep us tuned-in. The positive outcomes are often quite boring.

As a result, we forget to adequately acknowledge these “happy-endings” or record the positive gains. When one battle ends, another always seems to flare up. It’s much easier to watch the new fires than see the sprouts rising through the ashes of old battles.

However, I have and will always argue that it is essential for all of us, especially those on the front lines, to purposefully acknowledge positive progress; no matter how small, how subtle or how utterly boring. Once in awhile, it’s nice to have the opportunity to do an “end-zone” victory dance and fly a flag or two.  With that in mind, I’d like to update two stories that involved challenges to liberty within the public schools.

Let’s start in the South. One of last year’s top ten stories was the struggle to protect religious freedom within the Buncombe County School (BCS) system of North Carolina. This was the case that began when Ginger Strivelli, a local Pagan mother, challenged the presence of Gideon Bibles in her daughter’s school. Over multiple contentious meetings, the school board finally enacted policies that would ostensibly prevent any First Amendment violations and, in addition, would pave the way for interfaith talks.

A view of the Buncombe school board meeting.

A view of the Buncombe school board meeting.

During the early days of this case, I worked as Lady Liberty League’s Media Adviser. As such, I have written numerous case reports and articles; the last of which was just published in Circle Magazine’s latest issue (#112). That article contains the full scope of the Board’s newly enacted policy changes.

Here are some of the highlights. The Buncombe County School Board (BCS) has created a Faith-Based Advisory panel to act as consultant for all faith-based issues. Local Pagan, Byron Ballard, who has been actively involved in this case, now sits on that panel. In addition, the Board encouraged all teachers to celebrate  National Religious Freedom Day on January 16th.  On the first of January, the Board formally announced this intention and stated that all children will watch the newly produced BCS program called: “The 3Rs of Religion.”

Byron has confirmed that the overall progress has continued to be very positive. In fact, for the first time in a year, Byron will not be attending the Buncombe County School Board meeting. We are witnessing the evolution of a community and recognition of social change. However Byron did add:

“I’m cautiously optimistic about the relationship with the county school system, but I am aware that it will have to be monitored forever after. Vigilance, like strong fences, makes for good neighbors.”

Buncombe County’s story may not yet be fully written.

Now, let’s move over to Utah. In November, I reported on the ACLU’s lawsuit against the Davis School District in Utah.  One of its schools, Windridge Elementary, had restricted access to the book In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polocco because of its depiction of gay marriage. The restriction was initially supported by the district and encouraged for all lower grades. In November, the advisory council stated, “Members of our Community Council feel that the book is non-offensive, but agree that it should be restricted.  It can be found behind the Librarians desk.”  Shortly thereafter, parent Tina Weber challenged the legality of the decision which resulted in the ACLU’s lawsuit.

In Our Mothers' Houseby Patricia Polacco

On January 31, the ACLU reported that the Davis School Board has reversed that 2012 decision and put Our Mothers’ House back on all library shelves.  In a letter to the Board’s legal adviser  Assistant Superintendent, Pamela Park wrote, “I agree with and support the Committee’s conclusion regarding the book as follows:

  • Removing the book completely is not a good option.”
  • “We all know many non-traditional families” with students attending our schools.
  • “It could help those children in same-sex families see their family in a book.”
  • “[T]his book teaches acceptance and tolerance.”
  • “The book could help prevent bullying of kids from same-sex families.”
  • “It could be used by families to discuss the issues….” 

Park also confirmed that the book’s presence does not violate Utah educational policies because it’s not used as instructional material. She continues to advise that any parent who feels the book is inappropriate can contact the librarian and have the book restricted from his or her child only. You can read the letter in its entirety here.

The Utah case wasn’t necessarily a church-state issue. The school was restricting Patricia Polocco’s freedom of speech more than violating religious liberty. However, it could be argued that the case did have a religious freedom element. The Board restricted the book based on what could be considered a faith-based opinion. It’s opponents complained that In Our Mothers’ Housenormalizes a lifestyle we don’t agree with.”  Removing the book on such a basis promotes one faith’s value system over another. Facilitating parental choice supports the values of all people; no matter their religion or position on gay marriage.

Celebrating the work done in both Utah and North Carolina, and other similar cases, does not at all detract from the serious nature of defending First Amendment freedoms allowed by the darn Constitution. Nor does it show disrespect for those cases not yet closed.  Acknowledging progress strengthens our spirit and allows us to stand again.  It restores our faith in the American system.  We need this time to breathe.

So, in honor of the work done by those in Buncombe County and Davis County, “Way to Go!” Take your victory lap.

In Our Mothers' Houseby Patricia PolaccoToday I’m going to be a little daring and omit the long-winded, over-arching opening paragraph to get directly to the story. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Utah are suing the Davis School District, twenty-four miles outside of Salt Lake City, for removing a children’s picture book from the shelves of its elementary school libraries.  Why? The book, In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco, focuses on a family with two mothers.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m a children’s literature snob.  Dr. Seuss is my Dostoevsky.  Therefore, I felt it was my duty to share this information.  Patricia Polacco, a talented and prolific author of children’s books, published In Our Mothers’ House in 2009.  It is just one of her many stories that paints a picture celebrating cultural difference.

Before I get too caught up in kvelling over the author, let me detail the case. The trouble began in late 2011 when a Windridge Elementary School kindergartner borrowed In Our Mothers’ House.  His parents were appalled and immediately complained to the school’s administration.  To appease the parents the librarian moved the book to the shelves meant for older kids.

Unsatisfied with the results, the offended parents took their case to the Davis School Board.  In the spring of 2012 the Library Steering Committee was presented with a signed petition and a series of written complaints which can be summed up best with the comment: “[The Book] normalizes a lifestyle we don’t agree with.”  (ACLU Complaint Record)

Bowing to parental pressure, the district administration ordered the book’s removal from all elementary library shelves, placing them behind the librarian’s desk. To substantiate its decision, the Board cited Utah State law for School Health Instruction 53A-13-101 that prohibits “the advocacy of homosexuality.”  To date, all students may only access the book with signed parental permission.

In a state where 58% of the population is Mormon, the reaction is not surprising. (The Davis County Chamber of Commerce) However, for local resident Tina Weber, the school’s actions were not at all acceptable.  After no response from the district, she turned to the ACLU for support. In an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune, she explained:

As a parent, I believe that it’s my role to help [my children] understand certain issues … I don’t believe it’s for anybody else to tell me how to raise my family.

On November 13, 2012, the ACLU filed its lawsuit. The press release read:

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Utah filed a lawsuit against the Davis School District after elementary schools in the district were instructed to remove a children’s book about a family with same-sex parents from library shelves…..Public schools cannot remove books from the library shelves because some people disagree with the books’ viewpoint.  Under the First amendment, parents can place limits on what their own children can read but they cannot restrict access to books for everybody else’s children.

Over the past few months Tina Weber has garnered the support of many local organizations including, The Utah Library Association, Utah Pride Center, Ogden OUTreach Resource Center, Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).  At this point no court dates are set and the book still sits behind the librarians’ desk.

Unfortunately, this was not the first time that In Our Mothers’ House has made waves. As reported by the Texas ACLU, Polacco’s book is currently on the banned book list for all Texas public schools. Of course, as a concerned citizen, I immediately checked with my local schools and public libraries.  I’m happy to report that In Our Mothers’ House is available here.  Fortunately, I was able to snatch up a copy before the Black Friday rush on library borrowing.

In June The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) caught up with Patricia Polacco to interview her about the book, its inspiration, and the Utah ban.

Aside from being beautiful and well-written, Polacco’s books, including In Our Mothers’ House, play an important role in an increasingly heterogeneous world. Just look at our 113th U.S. Congress. According to Pew Forum, its composition demonstrates the “continuing, gradual increase in religious diversity that mirrors trends in the country as a whole.” It will house its first Buddhist Senator, its first Hindu in either chamber, a declared “none,” an increase in Catholics as well as small population of Jews, Muslims, and Mormons.

katztushDemographics are changing and we all have get use to it.  What better way to do that than to curl up with a good book. Through her unique style of storytelling, Polacco celebrates difference by connecting us to her characters, no matter who they are and who we are, through the universal components of the human experience.  I challenge anyone to get through Our Mothers’ House with a dry eye. By its end the story evolves into something so human that none of the details matter.

In addition, Polacco demonstrates a powerful respect for family tradition, cultural heritage, the wisdom of elders, and the power of friendship. Her stories offer a window into life – many of which are autobiographical derived from her own experiences as a dyslexic child. Her books don’t preach or lecture. They aren’t political or argumentative. They are just that – stories.

Babushka Baba Yaga

In the struggle for social acceptance, not all advances are made in the court room or on the battle field.  Some of the biggest strides can be made in the home with a warm fire and a good storybook. But in Utah, that opportunity is being threatened.  As Patricia Polacco stated in her interview, the book ban is a serious First Amendment issue. And, the ACLU agreed.

Just as the government cannot censor her writing; it should not have the power to censor our access to her writing.  I make the choice on what’s appropriate for me and for my children.  And, I choose Patricia Polacco’s books. Two days ago, I read In Our Mothers’ House to my daughter. She listened intently with no questions. Perhaps, in the future, when she meets a child with two mothers, she’ll remember Marmi and Meema and just how much they loved their kids. That is how change begins. And that is what matters.

Current Polacco books in my library:

  • Rechenka’s Eggs
  • Mrs Katz and Tush
  • Pink and Say
  • Just Plain Fancy
  • Thank You, Mr Faulkner
  • Junkard Wonders
  • Babushka Baba Yaga
  • Betty Doll
  • Babushka’s Doll
  • Thunder Cake
  • The Trees of the Dancing Goats
  • In My Mothers’ House (just ordered from Amazon)