LGBTQ Equality

Religious Right Extremists Say A Library’s Drag Queen Story Hour Promotes ‘Secular Humanism’

  Rob Boston

Public libraries often sponsor story times for children. Usually, the stories are read by librarians, but not always. Volunteers sometimes help out too.

In Houston, a public library hosted a story hour led by drag queens. Some people may love that idea and others may be less enthusiastic, but it’s safe to say one thing about it: A story hour led by drag queens in a public library does not, in any way, amount to the government establishing a religion.

Yet that argument was made – unsuccessfully – in a federal court recently.

A trio of far-right Christian men was angry over the event at Freed-Montrose Neighborhood Library, so they sued. I’m not a lawyer, but even I can tell that their central argument could have used a little work.

The Houston Chronicle described it like this: “The activists contended that the program where drag queens read books at the Montrose library violated the freedom of religion of library patrons. They argued in court documents that drag queens and transgender storytellers would indoctrinate children to believe in another religion, which the suit identifies as Secular Humanism. The activists believe the storytellers would groom children at the event to become transgender.”

When I read this, I had a flashback to the 1980s. Religious Right activists had a tendency back then to label anything they didn’t like going on in public schools or other public institutions as “secular humanism.” The term was a kind of all-purpose bogeyman. It was defined as a sort of godless, liberal and possibly communistic “religion” that had somehow managed to infiltrate government at all levels as well as the media and popular culture. Its goal was to overturn Christianity, promote atheism and force everyone to become gay – or something like that.

Most of these cases were laughed out of court, but in Hawkins County, Tenn., a federal court actually ruled in favor of some parents who challenged public school readers that they claimed promoted secular humanism. (The books contained excerpts from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Cinderella and Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl.) On appeal, the decision was quickly overturned. The appeals court held that merely exposing children to this material didn’t in any way infringe on their ability to practice their religion.

The argument is even less persuasive in the Houston case. Library story hours are voluntary events. No one has to be there. Children and their parents could listen to a story read by a drag queen and still pray, read a religious book or attend a house of worship.

Not surprisingly, the court tossed the case. U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ruled that the three men behind the lawsuit had no legal standing to bring it and that they had failed to prove their contention that anyone’s freedom of religion was violated by the story hour events.

Observed Rosenthal, “Here, the plaintiffs argue that ‘Drag Queen Storytime’ is a religious event because of an alleged connection between ‘Drag Queen Storytime,’ the LGBTQ community, and secular humanism. [T]hey fail to raise a constitutional claim because, even accepting that secular humanism could be a religion for [constitutional] purposes, the plaintiffs fail to allege any facts or basis showing that ‘Drag Queen Storytime’ is a religious activity. There is no allegation that a reader discussed secular humanism at the event, or that any story the Library selected invoked secular humanism or any religion at all.”

It’s worth noting that one of the plaintiffs in this case, Chris Sevier, is an anti-LGBTQ extremist who has a history of filing frivolous cases in courts. Sevier has filed lawsuits seeking the right to marry his laptop computer, in the mistaken belief that this is some sort of clever attempt to undermine marriage equality.

In fact, it’s just plain dumb. Courts had no difficulty rejecting those lawsuits. They should continue to do the same with the attack on Drag Queen Storytime. 

Congress needs to hear from you!

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The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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