As I've monitored Religious Right organizations over the years, one thing has provided a lot of amusement: the constant obsession with children's books and cartoon characters.
We all remember the late Jerry Falwell's assertion that Tinky Winky, the purple Teletubby, was gay. Alan Sears of the Alliance Defense Fund once opined in a book that SpongeBob SquarePants might be gay as well. After all, SpongeBob's best friend is a pink starfish. (What more evidence do you need?!) James Dobson of Focus on the Family once called SpongeBob a dupe for the gay rights movement for appearing in a video promoting tolerance.
Religious Right busybodies just can't keep their hands off children's literature. They spent years attacking the Harry Potter books for allegedly promoting witchcraft. Heather Has Two Mommies, a book about a girl with lesbian parents, pushed some Religious Right groups over the brink into hysteria.
Now the self-appointed guardians of public morality have another target: two allegedly gay penguins. Religious Right groups are up in arms over a kids' book titled And Tango Makes Three. The work, loosely based on actual incident, concerns two male penguins at New York City's Central Park Zoo who adopted a fertilized egg and raised the chick.
Thus did a charming story about unexpected behavior by animals that might amuse and delight young readers become, to the Religious Right, yet another part of the great gay agenda. Angry fundamentalist parents all over the country have demanded that And Tango Makes Three be removed from public school libraries and public libraries.
Focus on the Family was quick to jump on the censorship bandwagon. Candi Cushman, education analyst for Focus on the Family Action, said, "It's very misleading, and it's a very disingenuous, inaccurate way to promote a political agenda to little kids. What they're not telling kids is that the supposedly gay penguin who is the star of this story later mated with a female penguin in real life."
So a kids' book about penguin sex would have been okay with Focus on the Family – as long as they were heterosexual?
The chinstrap penguins in question, named Roy and Silo by zookeepers, engaged in a partnership that's not unusual for their species. It is called "paired behavior."
Male chinstraps are more involved dads than some of their counterparts in the animal kingdom. Male and female chinstraps take turns incubating eggs, sitting on them for shifts of five to 10 days, so males are accustomed to playing a serious parenting role.
Roy and Silo had been observed trying to hatch a rock as if it were an egg. The zookeepers decided to give them the second egg of a male and female penguin couple that had previously been unable to hatch two eggs at the same time. Roy and Silo successfully hatched the egg, and the chick was named Tango. It sounds like a happy, pro-life ending, but leave it to the Religious Right to carp about it.
There's no doubt that Roy and Silo were adopted by many in the gay community and became icons. But that's no reason to censor the book. Their unusual story remains compelling and provides an interesting, educational tale of unexpected animal behavior for youngsters.
The good news is that efforts by latter-day Puritans to censor this book are failing in some parts of the country. Most recently, officials in Loudoun County, Va., decided to return And Tango Makes Three to the shelves of the school library.
Loudoun County School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick now says it was a mistake to pull the book from elementary school libraries. A county resident had complained about the book, and Hatrick decided only teachers and parents should have access to it. He has now reversed himself and says the book may go back on the shelves.
In overruling himself, Hatrick relied on something of a technicality. He said that the resident who complained about the book is not a parent of children in the county school system. School policy states that challenges to curriculum material, he pointed out, must come from parents.
It's great that the book will remain in school libraries, but it's a shame that Hatrick didn't just come right out and say that the school system rejects censorship and will not allow a tiny fraction of religious extremists to determine the reading material of everyone else. The book, after all, was merely made available in the school library. No child was required to read it.
This will certainly not be the last Religious Right challenge to reading material in public schools. The American Library Association catalogues censorship attempts every year and always finds a disturbing number of challenges to books. The crusade against children's literature seems to be on the upswing, as theocracy-minded Religious Right activists seek to enforce their own Index of Forbidden Books.
And Tango Makes Three has won several awards. The American Library Association named it a Notable Children's Book, and the American Society for the Protection of Animals liked it so much they gave it an Outstanding Book Award. A family magazine published by the children's cable network Nick Jr. named it "Best Book of the Year."
It would be a shame if Religious Right pressure groups were to succeed in their campaign to keep this interesting book out of the hands of youngsters.