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GOP congressman claims the Bible has been banned in America for 60 years

Rep. Burgess Owens
Rep. Burgess Owens (R-UT) Photo: Screenshot

Rep. Burgess Owens (R-UT) appears to believe that the Bible has been banned in the U.S. since 1963. The congressman made the wild claim Thursday morning during a House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education hearing about banning “explicit” content from school libraries.

“Some say that we are here today to talk about so-called book burning in K–12 school libraries. One of our nation’s most consequential books, banning was done by Supreme Court in 1963, when officially it mandated the Bible reading, this book, is banned from all of us,” he said holding up a copy of the Bible. “Anything to do with federal, it’s no longer, can see it, can no longer read it.”

“As a matter of fact, some people probably think this is totally unconstitutional that I can even hold it up,” he claimed. “Due to the banning of this book, generations of Americans today have no knowledge of the tenets upon which this country has been founded. Tenets based on the belief that with God and time we can truly become a more perfect union.”

Presumably, Burgess was citing the Supreme Court’s 1963 ruling in Abington School District v. Schempp. But contrary to his claim, that decision simply declared that school-sponsored Bible readings were unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. It did not ban the Bible from schools.

Throughout the hour-long hearing, titled “Protecting Kids: Combatting Graphic, Explicit Content in School Libraries,” Republican members of the subcommittee and witnesses refuted the characterization of efforts to remove what they consider “inappropriate” material from school library shelves as “book-banning,” arguing that many of the “banned” books are still widely available online, in stores, and in public libraries. They also attempted to distance themselves from allegations of anti-LGBTQ+ bias, despite consistently citing LGBTQ+ books like Gender Queer, Lawn Boy, This Book is Gay, and All Boys Aren’t Blue as examples of “sexually explicit” or “pornographic” material.  

“Like every flashpoint in America’s culture war, the media has distorted the truth and fueled public outrage and discontent,” Rep. Aaron Bean (R-FL), the subcommittee’s chairman, claimed in his opening statement. “Today, the Committee will set the record straight for the American people: inappropriate books are in school libraries, and local communities are within their rights to remove them.”

In his testimony before the committee, Max Eden, a research fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, claimed that “American parents have been slandered by leftwing advocacy organizations and the media as ‘book banners.’”

“This is not a case of heterosexual vs. LGBT+,” Lindsey Smith, chair of the Montgomery County, Maryland, chapter of anti-LGBTQ+ group Moms for Liberty, testified. “Nor is this a political issue or, as many would call it, ‘book banning.’ This is about the innocence and protection of our children.” She went on to single out Gender Queer and implied that children “as young as three” are being exposed to the book.

“We don’t show porn in the name of education to children, so don’t make this about the sexual orientation of one group versus the other,” Smith said.

Ranking committee member Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) blasted House Republicans for introducing the “Stop the Sexualization of Children Act” last year, which she described as a “blueprint for book bans.” She noted PEN America’s finding that 41 percent of banned content focuses on LGBTQ+ themes and characters while 40 percent focuses on characters of color.

“These censorship laws are being enacted by extreme MAGA politicians under the pretext of ‘parental rights,’ when in reality it’s a coordinated and apparently well-funded vocal minority of parents and conservative organizations pushing their personal agenda on others,” she said. Bonamici added that she is concerned that Republicans are attempting to undermine the U.S. public education system in an effort to justify funneling tax dollars into “low-quality private voucher programs.”

In his testimony, Dr. Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America, eviscerated conservative claims that they are not banning books.

“If on Monday, a student has access to a book and on Tuesday she doesn’t as a result of a challenge over that book’s content, ideas, or themes, then that book has been banned. For that student, ready access to the book has been diminished or entirely restricted,” he said. “Whether that book has been locked in an administrator’s office, moved to an upper grade library, or permanently removed from circulation, or whether that book eventually gets returned to the shelf after some indeterminate period of review—for the duration that student can no longer access that book, it is banned.”

Friedman argued that the circumstances surrounding decisions to remove books from library shelves are “rooted in efforts to restrict access to information and ideas, implicating students’ First Amendment rights.”

“We must distinguish between a single parent raising a concern with a school and the current campaign to disrupt public education writ large. Between a parent who wants to accommodate a kid’s learning needs and one who grabs a list of books online they haven’t read and then demands that no other family should be able to access them in public institutions,” he continued. “Again and again we see targeted, organized, and replicated efforts to ban books with protagonists of color, books about African American history, books about LGBTQ identities.”

Friedman painted an alarming picture of what the current wave of book banning could cost students and the country. He quoted poet Nikki Grimes saying that she writes “to plant seeds of empathy and compassion.”

“That is what is at stake in today’s movement to ban books,” Friedman explained. “Whether we can live in a diverse society that upholds our traditions of freedom and democracy for us all or whether we want to allow a vocal minority with a discriminatory intent to narrow our students’ educational horizons.”

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