The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fla. law made school book bans easier. So one man challenged the Bible.

The man petitioning to ban the Bible says it is just as sexually explicit and violent as other books facing challenges

Chaz Stevens is trying to ban the Bible from Florida's public schools. (Chaz Stevens)
7 min

It was Florida’s move to reject 54 math textbooks for “prohibited subjects” that made up Chaz Stevens’s mind: It was time to go after the Bible.

Stevens, a 57-year-old tech wizard with a history of pulling wacky political stunts, had already been tracking the progress of a new state law that makes it easier for parents and county residents to challenge books in schools. The provision, which comes amid an unprecedented nationwide spike in challenges to books — particularly those by and about LGBTQ and Black people — was signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in late March. It takes effect July 1. But Stevens decided he could not wait a moment longer.

As of Wednesday, he has filed near-identical petitions with 63 Florida school districts asking to ban the Bible. He has also filed a second petition with one district, Broward County Public Schools, requesting the removal of the Oxford English Dictionary.

His three-page petition critiques the Bible for its depictions of bestiality and cannibalism, its “eye-popping passages of babies being smashed against the rocks” in Psalms 137 and its “strong pro-slavery position,” citing Ephesians 6:5-7.

“As the Bible casually references ... such topics as murder, adultery, sexual immorality, and fornication — or as I like to think, Date Night Friday Night — do we really want to teach our youth about drunken orgies?” the petition asks.

Schools nationwide are quietly removing books from their libraries

Stevens’s subsequent complaint against the dictionary calls it “a weighty tome over 1,000 years old, containing more than 600,000 words; all very troubling if we’re trying to keep our youth from learning about race, gender, sex, and such.”

Although Stevens’s petitions are tongue-in-cheek, legal experts said his actions highlight flaws and constitutional concerns surrounding Florida’s new law and others like it — and could lead to serious litigation down the line.

Erica Goldberg, a University of Dayton Law School professor who studies First Amendment rights, said Stevens’s petitions could showcase that the new law may cause school boards to engage in “viewpoint discrimination,” or removing information because of dislike of the ideas it contains, which is impermissible per the Supreme Court.

She noted that the Bible is replete with episodes of violence and sexual abuse, including the rape of Dinah in Genesis, which leads her brothers Levi and Simeon to kill every man in the city of Shechem to avenge her honor; the incestuous rape of King David’s daughter Tamar by her half brother Amnon; and the brutal dismemberment of a concubine in Judges. She said the Bible is at least as sexually explicit as some of the books parents are labeling inappropriate, raising the question: Why can the Bible stay in the library when those books have to go?

“This stunt is going to illuminate," she added. “Many of our First Amendment rights get meted out by edge cases or by people looking to make statements.”

Florida’s new law is part of a larger wave of Republican-led activism that aims to restrict what teachers can say — and students can read — about topics including gender identity, sexuality, race and racism. Red states are passing laws limiting instruction on these topics while adults nationwide are filing a record amount of requests to ban books that discuss these topics.

The Florida legislation bans from school libraries, reading lists and classroom instructional materials any texts that are “pornographic,” “not suited to student needs” or “inappropriate for [students'] grade level and age group.” It also requires school districts to establish a clear process allowing parents or county residents to file petitions challenging instructional material.

None of this directly violates the Constitution or Supreme Court precedent.

Catherine Ross, a law professor at George Washington University who specializes in constitutional law, said that public school districts have very wide latitude to determine what kinds of instructional materials, such as textbooks or course paraphernalia, appear in classrooms. She said school-level decisions about curricular removals or inclusions are almost “immune to legal challenge.”

But things are more complex when it comes to school libraries.

A majority of the Supreme Court has never ruled on school book bans, Ross said. The closest it came to weighing in on this issue was in 1982, in the case Board of Education v. Pico, when a plurality of the court ruled that the First Amendment places limitations on when and how a local school board can remove books from school libraries.

The doctrine that emerged from that ruling “says first of all, you have to use normal procedures” to remove a book, Ross said. “And then you cannot remove books because they are controversial or disfavored from a political or religious stance, et cetera.”

As the Supreme Court decision states: “Local school boards may not remove books from school libraries simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.” Over the years, selectively editing school materials in this manner has become known as viewpoint discrimination.

But schools can remove books for not being “educationally suitable for the age group,” Ross added. She said: “Now that is a huge opening that you could drive a truck through.”

Both Ross and Goldberg, of Dayton University, said that the Florida law — by requiring districts to formally allow parent book challenges — will probably increase the number of challenges and, thus, the number of times school officials are required to decide whether certain books are appropriate. This raises the likelihood of viewpoint discrimination taking place.

“I could definitely see some litigation boiling out down the line if parents don’t think schools are dealing with these complaints fairly,” Goldberg said. “The law is requiring schools to deal with these complaints by developing processes, and they’re going to have to crystallize in a fair-minded way what these processes will be.”

She predicted Stevens’s actions are merely the first salvo in a coming war.

More books are banned than ever before, as Congress takes on the issue

So far, Stevens has received responses from three school districts. Two school officials told him he needed to be a resident or parent to file a complaint. Stevens, who lives in Deerfield Beach, Fla., said he plans to recruit people across the state to file complaints.

A third official, Eydie Tricquet, the superintendent of the Jefferson County School District, wrote to say that her district is still under state control; Florida took over managing the district five years ago because of its failing grades, financial problems and staffing woes. But Jefferson is due to revert to local control this summer, and Tricquet promised in her email to Stevens that she will consider his request then, in accordance with school board policies and Florida law.

“At this time, I do not have a school or a library to place or remove a Bible,” Tricquet wrote.

Stevens, whose day job involves managing a website that connects people with mental health issues to supports including clinicians and therapy animals, said he knows many people see his efforts to ban the Bible as just the latest triviality in a long line of political pranks.

His colorful history includes campaigning to open city commission meetings with invocations to Satan, erecting a Festivus pole at the Florida Capitol to protest the Christmas Nativity scene and sending butt plugs to misbehaving public officials.

He pointed out that his antics once led to the arrests of two-fifths of Deerfield Beach city’s ruling body, including the mayor, over allegations they falsified records and violated state conflict of interest and gift disclosure laws.

“I’m sorry you’re stuck with me,” he said. “But I don’t see anybody else rising to the challenge, just a lot of ...Twitter commentary.”

He added: “If not me, then who?”