Fighting Book Bans in Pennsylvania

Photo by Tom Hermans on Unsplash

I am sixty-six years old and live in the Pine Richland School District (PRSD), an affluent suburb north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The PRSD has long been a highly rated district for both academic and athletic achievements. The idea that my district would even consider banning books was inconceivable, as I mistakenly thought this only happened in southern states like Florida and Texas.

After reading that the process to ban books in PRSD was underway, my research took me to the PRSD website, where I accessed the October 23, 2023 school board meeting. PRSD policy only allows residents to address the board. Flaunting this requirement, a conservative white woman (and former school board member!) introduced a married black preacher from North Carolina as her “roommate”, and he proclaimed that the PRSD was promoting “pornography” and “filth” with 11 award winning books available in the library. Four other speakers were preachers who invoked god and bible verses to support their claims. They targeted books supporting women, survivors of religious persecution, victims of school shootings, people of color, and/or the LBGTQ community. This pre-emptive attack on books occurred at a board meeting for which book banning was not on the agenda. It is part of a larger, well-coordinated, Christian nationalist program that wants to force its religious dogma and beliefs on everyone, especially those who have more open, nuanced, and welcoming views.

For the first time, I actively participated in a local issue. I involved my local secular humanist group, the Pittsburgh Freethought Community (PFC), which participated in an event on book banning in the PRSD. For the next school board meeting, the pro-freedom contingent was well-mobilized, with approximately 80% of community comments advocating for books and our librarians. I read two proposed banned books, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George Johnson and Push by Sapphire, and spoke for the first time at a school board meeting to discuss their positive value. Meeting attendance is important, as the school board and superintendent not only hear those speaking, but also see community support from the audience reaction. I followed up with several emails to the school board, with each focusing on a different reason to reject the book bans. I reached out to the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which sent a letter to school board members encouraging them to resist religious-based book banning, but if they choose to go down the banning route, they should also ban the bible due to its many overtly sexual and violent passages. The American Humanist Association also sent a letter warning against the unconstitutional practice of banning books.

Currently, a lottery-selected book review committee has read the books and submitted a recommendation to the superintendent, who has also read the books. The superintendent will then make a recommendation to the school board based on the committee recommendation and his own judgment. We expect to learn more at the April 8 school board meeting.

Since school boards are elected, it is imperative to get involved to promote a school board that reflects our values. I recently joined a local Pine Township movement that better supports secular humanist viewpoints. The current PRSD Board is made up of nine members, with eight from a movement associated with book bans and fighting the first amendment’s “no law respecting an establishment of religion” and with only one member from a movement that more ardently advocates first amendment rights. And she won her position by a single vote—my vote! Every vote and every election matters, especially in local elections for which margins can be razor thin. And I will certainly hold board members accountable for their votes and encourage my secular humanist peers to do the same.