Palm Beach County school leaders vote to keep Bible in libraries after parent challenge

“I am not comfortable banning any book for the sake of making a point or sending a message,” Schools Superintendent Mike Burke said Wednesday.

Palm Beach Post | By Katherine Kokal | Updated July 20, 2023

Palm Beach County school leaders decided to keep the Bible on public school shelves Wednesday.

The discussion came after Barry Silver, an outspoken civil rights advocate based in Boynton Beach, formally objected in April to the Bible being on library shelves at Olympic Heights High School in Boca Raton, where his son, Brandon, was a senior in the spring.

Silver said the book contains “misogyny, violence, sexual conduct, rape, incest, animal cruelty, abuse, antisemitism, anti-science and indoctrination,” and he attached a petition for its removal signed by about 50 people. He argued that Charles Darwin’s “On The Origin of The Species” should replace the Bible on school shelves.

“This school board has a duty to create students who are free from indoctrination,” Silver said at Wednesday’s meeting. “We are counting on them to lead us into the future.”

Arlene Ustin, Delray Beach, joined sign holders carrying messages in opposition to book bans on the south side of Forest Hill Boulevard outside of the The School District of Palm Beach County’s Fulton-Holland Educational Services Center in Palm Springs, Fla., on July 19, 2023.

“We have not banned any books in Palm Beach County,” board member Karen Brill said. “One parent or one group of parents should not be making decisions for all parents.”

Before reaching the school board, Silver’s objection was denied three times: first by the school’s material review committee, then by Kelly Burke, the school’s principal, and then by Superintendent Mike Burke (no relation to Kelly Burke).

I am not comfortably banning any book for the sake of making a point or sending a message.

Superintendent Mike Burke

All three denials cite the same Florida statute, which permits the study of the Bible and religion and allows districts to install a “secular program of education including, but not limited to, an objective study of the Bible and of religion.”

Mike Burke reiterated Wednesday that the Bible is not part of the curriculum in public schools. He stood by his previous decision to deny Silver’s challenge.

“I am not comfortable banning any book for the sake of making a point or sending a message,” Burke said.

Sign holders carrying messages in opposition to book bans stand facing eastbound traffic on the south side of Forest Hill Boulevard outside of the The School District of Palm Beach County’s Fulton-Holland Educational Services Center in Palm Springs, Fla., on July 19, 2023. THOMAS CORDY/THE PALM BEACH POST

More than 30 people demonstrated outside the school district office Wednesday ahead of the meeting.

Jan Clark, of Wellington, joined the group with a sign that read, “What’s next, book burning?” on one side and “Books Don’t Kill Kids” on the other.

She said school districts are hypocritical if they allow challenges to some books and not others that may be inappropriate for children.

“It’s not the Bible; it’s the concept of keeping kids of being able to read what they should be able to access in high school,” Clark said. “That’s not right. How hypocritical can you be?”

Mikki Royce, who helped organize the protest, said she was surprised to learn public schools in Palm Beach County have copies of religious books in the library. She said that the school board should keep church and state separate.

“The bigotry behind banning books is un-American,” Royce said. “It’s a great way to create an ignorant population.”

Asked about Silver’s push to challenge a book in protest of book bans, Royce said, “It is to present the irony. It is a statement.”

Which Palm Beach County schools carry religious books? Which states allow Bible literacy classes?

In Palm Beach County, 18 schools carry a copy of the Bible, 13 schools carry copies of the Quran and 15 carry copies of the Torah, according to data provided by the school district.

The availability of the Bible has been challenged recently elsewhere in Florida.

On July 14, the Tallahassee-area Freedom from Religion Foundation sent an email to the Leon County School Board urging it to pull the Bible from public school shelves as a challenge to the local chapter of Moms for Liberty, which advocated for pulling five books from the shelves.

“We are disturbed that the district has chosen to start removing books from school libraries based on content taken out of context at the request of extremist groups like Moms for Liberty,” foundation Staff Attorney Christopher Line said in the published email to the district, The Tallahassee Democrat reported.

Last year, three school districts, including Escambia County, which includes Pensacola, removed the Bible for varying lengths of time along with hundreds of other books. The Keller Independent School District, north of Fort Worth, Texas, and the Wentzville School District, 40 miles west of St. Louis, also removed the book before returning it to the shelves.

Just last month, Davis County Schools in Utah removed the Bible from elementary and middle school libraries after determining it was too “violent and vulgar” for young children.

Seven states — Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas — require Bible literacy classes in public schools. Florida’s statute does not.

Individual schools manage their library collections, according to school board policy.

Public speakers oppose Silver’s challenge to the Bible

Classroom books at Timber Trace Elementary School in Palm Beach Gardens.

Classroom books at Timber trace Elementary School in Palm Beach Gardens. Contributed by Palm Beach Gardens

About half of the people who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting supported keeping the Bible in school libraries.

Cindy Falco DiCorrado, a former candidate for Boynton Beach mayor who was convicted of two misdemeanors for refusing to wear a mask in 2021, said the United States was founded “based on biblical principles and morality.”

“This is what this man wants to take away?” she asked. “The Bible is the only correct map for the human heart.”

Conner Frontera, who ran for school board in 2022, also spoke up in favor of keeping the Bible available to students.

“Our children need the Bible, not only to pass the AP World History exam but to introduce them to the greatest world history book ever written,” Frontera said. “Our country was founded on Judeo-Christian values.”

What criteria did the school board use to decide on the Bible challenge?

The school board reviewed Silver’s challenge using the same criteria as the school materials review committee, the principal and the superintendent.

The criteria includes the following:

  • Educational significance of the material
  • Appropriateness of age and maturity level
  • Need and value to the collection or curriculum
  • Summation of the professional reviews on the media
  • Literary merit
  • Validity, accuracy, objectivity and up-to-date and appropriate information
  • Freedom from stereotypes, bias, prejudice or distortion
  • Timeliness or permanence
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