CHARLOTTE — This week, Xiomara Bautista took her usual place in the ninth grade, language-arts class at Lake Norman Charter School.
Whether she stays there remains to be seen.
The fictional 15-year-old heroine of the award-winning novel, "The Poet X," is at the center of an escalating legal dispute at one of the Charlotte area's best public schools — a court fight that has now reached the country's second highest court.
On Monday, Lake Norman Charter began teaching the book to its freshman language-arts students after a federal judge rejected the request of a Huntersville couple to stop it.
In their lawsuit last month, John and Robin Coble — the parents of a ninth grader at the school — said Xiomara's cryptic musings in "The Poet X" amounted to a "frontal assault" on their family's Christian beliefs and values, thus violating the religious protections spelled out in the U.S. Constitution.
The couple asked the federal courts in Charlotte to issue a temporary restraining order to ban the school from using the book in their son's classroom until their case is resolved.
U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn refused. The veteran Asheville judge ruled Friday that the Cobles had failed to prove that their child would be harmed by the book or that the school endorsed the novel's criticism of organized religion.
"The sincerity of the plaintiffs' religious objections to The Poet X is not disputed, nor is the fact that the book deeply offends (them)," Cogburn wrote.
"Even accepting, however, that the work is antithetical to the particular Christian beliefs espoused by the plaintiffs, its inclusion in the high school curriculum alone does not violate the Establishment Clause (of the U.S. Constitution)."
On Monday the Cobles, who are Baptists, took their fight to the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. While asking the court to overturn Cogburn's order, they also sought an emergency injunction from the Richmond, Va.,-based judges to block Lake Norman Charter from teaching the book until they rule on the appeal.
On Monday afternoon, a three-judge Fourth Circuit panel — which included North Carolinians Albert Diaz and James Wynn — unanimously rejected the injunction, though the Cobles' appeal is still pending.
Sara Lay, community relations director at the school, said Lake Norman Charter is confident that the courtroom fight will end in its favor.
"For all the reasons cited in (Cogburn's) denial of the temporary restraining order, we feel the law supports the school's position and are confident that we will again prevail in this latest attempt as well as in any future legal proceedings," she said.
Huntersville attorney Joel Bondurant, who is representing the Cobles, told the Observer that his clients' claims go beyond the fact that their son will be exposed to anti-religious material. "Our position is that a state actor, much less a secondary public school, cannot promote or use materials that explicitly disparage a particular faith tradition," he said in a phone interview on Monday.
"The Poet X" was written by Elizabeth Acevedo. The novel, which won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, focuses on how Xiomara's discovery of slam poetry brings meaning to her life.
Throughout the book, the Dominican-American struggles with her mother's Catholicism. In one of the poems cited in the Cobles' lawsuit, the Harlem teen says Jesus "feels like a friend ... who invites himself over too often, who texts me too much. A friend I just don't think I need anymore."
In another, Xiomara describes Mary, the mother of Jesus, as "an impregnated virgin who was probably scared s---less."
At the same time, Xiomara relies on the guidance of a friendly priest and by book's end has begun developing a spiritual side, albeit one that is different from her family's.
The schoolhouse dispute over the novel becomes the latest Charlotte-area court battle fought on the expanding battlefield of religious liberty. Up to now some of the rhetoric surrounding the Lake Norman Charter case hearkens to a crusade.
"If Christians were gearing up for war, no reasonably objective observer could blame them," the Cobles' lawsuit says about some passages of the book.
In an affidavit filed in the case, John Coble said teaching his son the anti-religious material found in the book "is tantamount to a hostile engagement on the battlefield. Expecting him to stand against 20 or more of his peers and remain unaffected is unreasonable to the extreme."
In an earlier statement to the Observer, Lake Norman Charter said it would not be pressured to censor what its students read.
It said it sent out the reading list for ninth grade students to the Cobles and other parents in late August. According to court documents, the couple filed their lawsuit about two weeks before the language arts class was to begin discussing the novel.
The school says it offered to provide an alternative book and classroom for the Cobles' son and other students who did not want to read "The Poet X," but the Cobles' refused. (In his affidavit, John Coble called the arrangement a "separate and unequal" education.)
Books like "Poet X," the school said, are consistent with its commitment to seek "diverse thought and a range of opinions and perspectives to increase students' awareness, expand their thinking and ultimately help them grow and achieve their full potential."
In an affidavit filed as part of the school's defense against the lawsuit, Jennifer Hunt, who teaches the ninth grade language arts class, described "The Poet X" as a useful teaching tool on a variety of subjects that the Lake Norman Charter first used last year.
"Our students indicated ... that the book resonated with them because it is beautifully written and crafted. Therefore, we decided to use it again," Hunt said. "... We do not ask students to endorse or disapprove of Xiomara's religious views or any other person's views of religion."
Cogburn's ruling appeared to be searching for a middle ground.
While upholding for now Lake Norman's use of the novel, he said he was "troubled by defendants' decision to teach a book that is so controversial that they have an established opt-out procedure in place to deal with several students who have chosen not to read The Poet X this fall."
He urged school leaders to remember that it is "entrusted with the children of diverse families from diverse religious backgrounds. As such, defendants have a vital responsibility to ensure that their school is not a divisive environment."
Yet, Cogburn said many of the passages of the book cited in the Cobles' complaint have less to do with religion than they do with "the frustrating confrontation of adolescents with parents, sexual desire, religious doubt, and loneliness. "