A bill has been introduced in the Missouri legislature that threatens public libraries with revocation of funding and even jail time for librarians if they allow children to get their hands on “age-inappropriate” materials.

Sponsored by state Rep. Ben Baker (R-Neosho), H.B. 2044 would establish five-member “parental library review boards” that would be empowered to hold public hearings – in essence putting books, publications and even library events – on trial and restrict access to material deemed inappropriate for minors.

Proposals to instill censorship in public libraries pop up from time to time, usually couched in the language of “protect the children.” In the 1990s, Religious Right groups attempted to remove material about LGBTQ issues and “the occult” from public libraries by forming a pressure group called Family Friendly Libraries.

As AU learned from that experience, all of the talk about “age-inappropriate material” – deliberately a very vague term open to a wide interpretation – is really just a ruse intolerant religious fundamentalists use hoping to rid libraries of materials they don’t like, and almost always that’s anything with an LGBTQ theme. Far from protecting children, what they’re trying to do is restrict access to a host of material that offends their religious sensibilities. Their narrow interpretation of faith would become the yardstick to determine what everyone else can see, read and experience.

It’s easy to see how these review boards could be taken over by religious zealots with very broad definitions of what constitutes “age-inappropriate.” Material could become inaccessible to the audience who needs it most: kids who just want accurate information about a host of issues that young people face every day, including sexuality.

We’ve been down this road before. In the 1950s, Americans United fought back against heavy-handed religion-based censorship that restricted not only what Americans could read but what they could see in films and in stage plays. Early in the 20th century, this type of censorship inspired by prudish “anti-vice societies” was very common in some parts of the country – “Banned in Boston,” anyone? Usually, all they ended up doing was censoring books that are today considered classics.

It took some time to break this grip, but break it we did. Today, there are those among us who yearn to bring it back under the misguided cry of saving our children.

If these people really cared about children, they wouldn’t use them as foils in a gambit to deny information and foster ignorance. Instead, they’d support public libraries as the necessary and vital resource that they are.