I heard late today from the Pacific Justice Institute, which sent me scanned copies of their original letter to the Springs Charter Schools, and the schools’ response. First, the gist of the August 22 letter from PJI senior counsel Michael Peffer:

We have been advised by our client, a parent of one of your students, of some troubling news from your Temecula library. Our client was in the library within the last couple of weeks. She was told by one of the library attendants that the library has been instructed to remove all books with a Christian message, authored by Christians, or published by a Christian publishing company. The attendant advised that the library would no longer be carrying those books. Indeed, in our client was told that the library was giving those books away, and she actually took some.

We believe that purging religious books from the library is unconstitutional and violates, among other laws, the First Amendment.

The letter goes on to cite a 1982 Supreme Court decision in Board of Education Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico, a case that limited the power of school boards to ban books from school libraries.

Dr. Kathleen Hermsmeyer, superintendent of the schools, responded. This is the gist of her letter:

Our school caters primarily to a homeschooling population of families. In order to help provide curricular choices to our families, we allow homeschool parents to borrow or purchase a wide array of secular textbooks and other educational materials. We call the warehouse where we store our curriculum our resource “library”. It is designed to house and distribute curriculum materials that we purchase with State funds for our families.

We are a public school, and as such, we are barred by law from purchasing sectarian curriculum materials with State funds. We only keep on our shelves the books that we are authorized to purchase with public funds.

At the end of each school year, when we collect returned textbooks and supplies, parents often donate books and materials that they purchased with their own money to our “library”. We put those materials on a rolling cart to give away to parents who visit our warehouse.

I hope this has cleared up any confusion. We do not purchase sectarian educational materials and do not allow sectarian materials on our State-authorized lending shelves. At no time, however, have we discriminated against Christian authors or publishing companies who create secular educational materials.

I note that the question of Corrie ten Boom’s memoir The Hiding Place did not come up in the correspondence. It was first mentioned in PJI’s press release on September 18, to wit:

A parent of students enrolled at Springs Charter Schools was recently shocked to see some of the books being targeted for removal, including the well-known account of Holocaust survivor Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place.  The parent contacted PJI after library personnel explained to her that they had been directed to remove Christian books, books by Christian authors, and books from Christian publishers.

Joel Miller, from whose blog entry I first learned about the controversy, has been on the phone today with . From his update:

I spoke this afternoon with Pacific Justice Institute President Brad Dacus directly about the situation. He sent both PJI’s original letter to the school and the school’s response, both available here for viewing.

“We have,” Dacus told me, “eyewitness to what was said and done—and what was said to justify what was done.”

Dacus not only vouched for the eyewitness, but the attorney running point on the case, Michael J. Peffer, said in the comments below that the account was corroborated.

Based on the precedent cited in PJI’s letter, the reported book purge is more than a little problematic. “They are functioning as a library, and libraries cannot adopt that as a policy,” said Dacus.

In the superintendent’s comments, she says that the school is barred from buying religious books and that the books in question were acquired from parents and given away to anyone who wants them. Yet the eyewitness, according to Dacus and Peffer, said the book bore library tags—that is, were the property of the library and identified for lending.

Check out the comments section of Joel’s blog. A California homeschooling parent said that when she tried to check out Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring from the library of her charter school, she was told the same thing.

If this Corrie ten Boom flap is going to be settled definitively, it looks like people are going to have to come forward and put their names to the accusations. Which library worker said what to whom? I share Joel Miller’s suspicion of the language Dr. Hermsmeyer used in addressing concerns about all this. She has not denied the specific allegations, nor has she clarified what the directive was to the library staff. Was The Hiding Place marked as a library book, and if so, was it ordered removed from the shelves? Why or why not?

Are there any school parents or staffers who can shed more light on this situation? Please comment here, or email me at rod (at) amconmag.com.

Here is a depressing commentary on the situation from someone at Library Journal, the leading trade publication for librarians, who blogs as “Annoyed Librarian”. This gives you a sense of her approach:

The PJI appears to be a bunch of bigots who hate homosexuals and don’t mind stretching the truth to advance their cause. Thus, it’s pretty hard for non-bigots with any critical thinking skills to take their press release seriously.

She says she has never read The Hiding Place, and never heard of it. But boy, does she not want it on school library shelves. Annoyed Librarian says the removal of The Hiding Place didn’t happen, and if it did, Corrie ten Boom deserved it, because Jesus:

If you want to teach kids about the Holocaust, using the testimony of a Christian evangelist doesn’t make a lot of sense, so only teachers who wanted to evangelize their students would have used it, and most of them probably don’t teach in California charter schools.

After all, there must be some other book that might help students learn about hiding Jews from Nazis during the war, maybe one whose main audience is broader than that of evangelical Christians, perhaps a book written by an actual Jewish person who was in fact hidden from the Nazis, and maybe she could be roughly the same age as the students who are learning about her, helping the students to identify with her more.

There must be a book like that out there somewhere.

This anonymous person is a blogger at the most influential publication for the librarian profession, and she is perfectly comfortable denouncing for school use a book she concedes she has never read, or even heard of, because its author — who saved the lives of hundreds of Jews and went to a concentration camp for it, and lost her Jew-saving sister and her Jew-saving father to the Nazis — was a Christian who evangelized.

And people wonder why complaints like PJI’s sound credible to the rest of us.

UPDATE: The reader Surly sends in this explanation of the statement put out by the school superintendent. Surly says she works in a large organization, and the lack of clear writing skills among employees murks up communication within the office:

[Dr. Hermsmeyer wrote:] On August 22, Michael Peffer of the Pacific Justice Institute contacted my office at Springs Charter Schools about a conversation that had occurred last summer between a parent of a Springs Charter Schools student and an employee of Springs Charter School, neither of whom were identified.

[Surly comments; hers are in italics from here on out:] PJI contacted them in August 2014 reporting hearsay between two unidentified people that had occurred “last summer.”      Not a single provable, specific allegation here.

The conversation took place in the Springs Resource Library, which is a warehouse for textbooks we use in our school programs (it is not actually a library, in fact, we have since renamed it the Curriculum Warehouse to eliminate any confusion).

Due to the fact that our schools are independent study charter schools, we do not maintain traditional lending libraries.

[I take this to mean “we don’t stock book books, we only stock textbooks.”]

According to the letter, the unidentified Springs employee told the unidentified parent that he/she was instructed to “remove all books with a Christian message, authored by Christians, or published by a Christian publishing company.”

[People can tell other people anything they want.  That doesn’t make it true.]

At Springs Charter Schools, we’re pleased to welcome families of a variety of religious backgrounds, including many Christians, and do not discriminate against or disparage anyone because of their religious beliefs. We can and do provide educational novels with religious perspectives, including Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place. However, like every other public school in the State of California, we cannot legally maintain religious textbooks on our warehouse shelves for distribution to our families. Donated items are made available to our families at no cost. Any and all donated items are not incorporated onto the shelves of our Curriculum Warehouse. The only materials we maintain on the shelves of our Curriculum Warehouse are items we have purchased ourselves in accordance with the laws of our State.

[It may be the paragraph was not constructed to convey what the writer meant.  Try the sentences in this order:

  1. 1.      However, like every other public school in the State of California, we cannot legally maintain religious textbooks on our warehouse shelves for distribution to our families. (You’re right-it’s not a religious textbook.  She could have just said that)
  2. The only materials we maintain on the shelves of our Curriculum Warehouse are items we have purchased ourselves in accordance with the laws of our State.
  3. Donated items are made available to our families at no cost. Any and all donated items are not incorporated onto the shelves of our Curriculum Warehouse.
  4. 4.      We can and do provide educational novels with religious perspectives, including Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place. (perhaps the author should have clarified that if a donated copy of this book is there, they can provide it)
  5. We regret that our policy has been perceived by some as hostility toward a particular religious perspective. It is not. We value all of our families and respect their personal beliefs, and each day strive to give our students a quality public school education in accordance with the laws of our State.”

Springs Charter Schools are tuition-free, public schools of choice serving more than 6,000 California school children and their parents. Many Springs parents choose to homeschool full-time, while others choose two to five days per week of a blended model that includes classroom instruction with home study. Springs serves students with 14 student centers in the Counties of Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles.

[Hey, we’re catering to a fragmented market for free.  You can get the basics here, but we can’t custom tailor our inventory for every single homeschooler in a region that is larger than some small nations.]

UPDATE.2: Great comment by Fiddlinmom, who I’m betting gets closest to the truth of what happened here:

I homeschooled my kids for several years through a public charter school in California, though not Springs Charter School. I can easily imagine the school I used getting caught up in a similar kerfuffle.

Homeschool families here love the charter schools because of the free curricula and the money provided to pay for lessons or classes or books. But it is understood that none of that money from the charter can be used to purchase materials from religious publishers. That means if you want to use materials from Abeka or Sonlight or Memoria Press you have to buy it with your own funds. That is fairly cut and dry.

But it is still a touchy subject because of the large contingent of religious homeschoolers, which in the case of my charter included a large number of both Christian and Muslim families. Where do you draw the line on what is religious? Who decides? Can religious materials a family bought with their own money be used for the monthly work samples that get turned in and filed away? Should just the lines of scripture be blacked out with a sharpie? What if the entire essay or lesson was based on a Bible passage? Should something else be used for a work sample instead?

Those files with the samples of your child’s work do get audited for a variety of reasons. The charters have to be renewed on a regular basis. The schools also work hard to be accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), so that their high school college prep courses are indeed recognized as college prep. Some charter schools are physical schools while others are for supporting homeschool families, and each have their own sets of rules and regulations. The homeschool charters might offer classes, but those have to be labeled “supplementary”, even though families treat them as full-credit courses. I can easily imagine language that differentiates between a library and a warehouse, and the kinds of materials allowed in either. It all makes for a Byzantine bureaucratic maze.

On top of the issues of religious materials there is the added pressure to have homeschool families use only state approved curricula. Then there are the young teachers with freshly minted credentials and little life experience interpreting the “no religious materials mandate” and making decisions on what a family can and cannot use. I can easily imagine a young staff member making an off hand remark about removing The Hiding Place, never dreaming what those words would ignite.

This is not the case of a school library banning a book. It isn’t yet another example of a war against Christians. It is a book and a charter school caught in a Catch 22 because of the overly bureaucratic system tied in knots as it tries to be all things to all people.