I ran across this email I wrote back in November 2000 in response to a potential customer who was hoping to have her homeschool/charter school pay for most if not all of the books she purchased.
At the time, Sonlight was dealing with a lot of people who wanted to have their local, publicly-funded charter schools pay for their curricular materials. (After all, they were paying taxes. Why shouldn't they get their materials paid for by tax dollars?)
I will confess: I was becoming rather frustrated with what appeared to me to be the blatant discrimination being engaged in by these charter schools. Probably 90 percent of the books Sonlight carries can be bought Borders, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or any of hundreds of other "secular" book distributors. The charter schools would give homeschoolers the "right" to purchase from any one of these "secular" book distributors, but Sonlight? Oh, no! Not that company! It has an "O" in its name, so it is obviously religious. . . .
So here is how I replied:
Dear B____:--I have no idea whether this woman ever purchased from Sonlight. My guess: Probably not. The school district, I expect, really didn't want to hassle with someone who would question their policies like I did.
Karen [a Sonlight customer and subcontractor dedicated to customer support] forwarded me copies of your last couple of notes, especially the one in which you asked, "Is SL considered a Publisher? We are not allowed to use the charter money to purchase anything from a 'Religious Publisher.' "
Karen asked, "Are we [i.e., is Sonlight Curriculum, Ltd.] technically a religious publisher since we publish a few things?"
Let me note, first, that the real question, I believe, is not whether Sonlight Curriculum, Ltd., is a publisher. The real question, I expect, is whether we are religious.
And the truth is, I am unable to answer your question as stated. Indeed, for your sake and ours--as well as the sake of other homeschoolers who may be thinking of coming under your charter school's umbrella--and, indeed, for the sake of your charter school/school district, perhaps you could ask the powers-that-be to answer the following questions.
1. Does your school district/charter school wish to inquire into the religious convictions of the owners of Sonlight Curriculum, Ltd.? (If so, I believe they are acting in a discriminatory and unconstitutional manner.)
2. Does your school district/charter school wish to know whether we publish some religious titles? (I cannot believe that is really what they are asking. If so, they would hardly be able to educate anyone. For example: Among the publishers whose titles we distribute are such well-known names as HarperCollins, Random House, Doubleday, Dell, Macmillan, and so forth. Every one of those firms publishes religious works as well as more secular titles. Most of the Newbery Award winners are published by these firms. Scott Foresman is one of the largest educational publishing houses . . . and is a division of HarperCollins which publishes a bunch of religious/Christian titles. Is your school district/charter school willing to tell you that they refuse to purchase any titles from any of these publishers (or hundreds of others) because they publish religious titles?)
3. Is your school district/charter school only unwilling to purchase titles from publishers who release works with Christian religious overtones, or are they unwilling to purchase books published by publishers who include books with any religious nature of any kind?
Examples: Are they unwilling to purchase books that discuss the Incan, Aztec, and other ancient religions? What about books that mention, discuss, describe, or interact with Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism or other such modern religions? (Tipping my hand here: the fact is, Sonlight carries books that deal with all of these things. As far as I can remember right off the bat, we only publish books that deal with some of the ancient religions and with Judaism and many of the various sects of Christianity.)
4. Does your school district/charter school want to weed out only publishers of religious works, or are they concerned to weed out resellers? I ask this, because most distributors of literary works (as we are) also sell books with religious themes. Bertelsmann, the owner of Random House, now also owns Barnes & Noble. And, of course, Barnes & Noble has a strong religious section. Ingram, the largest book wholesaler in the United States has a religious catalog. It owns the largest religious book distributor, Spring Arbor. Ingram also sells religious titles in its regular catalog. . . .
So how "pure" in its separatism does your school district/charter school want to be? Do they simply want not to purchase religious works? Or do they want to be more holy than that and separate themselves from those who publish religious works? Or do they want to be holier-than-holy and separate themselves from those who purchase from those who publish religious works? (I mean, truly: what do they want? How "holy" do they want to be in their non-religiosity? Kind of like a reverse picture of the religious fundamentalists who "don't go with those who chew, nor those who go with those who do"? . . . )
5. The name Sonlight Curriculum, Ltd., we are told, has religious connotations. Does your school district/charter school wish to discriminate against our firm because its name has religious overtones? (If so, then I believe they are acting unconstitutionally. By the way: if they say, yes: do they refuse to purchase healthcare services from any and all healthcare providers who have words like "St.," "Adventist," or other such religiously-freighted terms in them? Do they refuse to participate in "Red Cross" blood drives?)
In summary: it strikes me, considering the questions I have felt obliged to ask you, that your school district/charter school's policy is (or must be) unclear and/or unconstitutionally discriminatory. Therefore, if and when you ask them these questions, I would expect that they will either change their policy, or fear (rightly) that they will be sued. (They ought to be sued for a policy such as that which your question implies.)
Though I don't expect you to sue them, I would expect you to do the right thing, and at least show them how offensive their morally, legally, and ethically bankrupt policy is by at least asking the questions.
That they would say something to you that put you into a position where you felt obligated to ask us whether or not we are a "religious publisher" gets me thinking about the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s: "Achtung! JUDEN! Identify yourselves! Wear a yellow Star of David so we can spit at you, beat you, refuse to shop at your [filthy] stores, smash your stores' windows and, ultimately, murder you!"
[Let me say: I feel this especially acutely partially because my father, a German Jew, lived in Germany at the time and went through most of the pre-World War II anti-Jewish furor in Germany.]
Okay! (Or as Jim Carrey would say, "All righty, then!")
Have a great day!
John Holzmann, Co-Owner
PS--Sonlight Curriculum, Ltd. sells well over 1000 items purchased from over 100 publishers, many of which are well known in secular and religious circles. A few of the 100+ publishers from whom we purchase seem more or less focused on religious themes. Others (including those I listed above) are less focused, but still publish religious books. I have not attempted to discern whether absolutely all of them publish religious titles. We don't discriminate against publishers based on whether or not they print religious titles.
Sonlight Curriculum, Ltd. publishes about 50 titles. One of those titles deals with the Incans, Aztecs and Mayans and their religions; at least two are straight-out Bible studies. We also (beyond the 50 titles) publish about 35 teacher's manuals, some of which have rather significant biblical and religious studies in them.
Among our customers we count Protestants (of all varieties), Catholics, Jews, Eastern Orthodox, and other religious believers. We also have secularists and atheists. Come to our website forums and ask. The participants there will be happy to tell you.
PPS--Your question--and, therefore, your school district/charter school's policy--reminds me, too, of the Supreme Court justice who said, "I can't give a legal definition of pornography, but I know it when I see it!" --His viewpoint failed to survive judicial review in the United States. If your school district/charter school wants to define "religious publisher" in a manner similar to how that Supreme Court justice wished to define pornography . . . again, I think they can expect, sooner or later, someone is going to sue them. Their policy is, as I suggested, not only morally and ethically bankrupt, but legally bankrupt as well.
But as I re-read the letter, it struck me: I still agree with where I was coming from at the time. And this kind of discriminatory practice continues.