November 2023 Church & State Magazine - November 2023

Librarians in Kan. town fired after using rainbow autism symbol in display


Two librarians in Sterling, Kan., who were fired after they incorporated a rainbow image into a display are suing, asserting that the library board is hostile to diverse points of view.

The lawsuit was filed by the former librarians, Kari Wheeler and Brandy Lancaster, and two patrons, Samantha Corwin and Audra Asher, reported the Topeka Capital-Journal.

Girl choosing books from the shelves of the public library

Censorship outbreak: Freedom to read under attack (Getty Images)

The display, erected in June, was intended to acknowledge and celebrate diversity. Among the items used was a multi-colored infinity symbol, which is often used to promote awareness of autism and neurodivergent individuals. A temporary employee at the library assumed the symbol was connected to LGBTQ+ rights and complained about it.

The Wheeler v. Sterling Free Public Library Board of Directors lawsuit asserts that the temporary employee, Ruth Splitter, released an “anti-LGBT diatribe” over the display. She continued to rant even after being told the symbol was meant to represent the autism/neurodiversity communities.

Splitter took her complaints to board member Michelle Miller, who ordered Wheeler, the library director, to remove the display, remarking, “I do not want any kind of rainbow display (aside from solely colors focused) especially in this month. We have a conservative town and as a library do not need to make political statements (see Target and Budlight [sic] as negative examples). I certainly do not want the library to promote LGBTQ agendas.”

Miller later added, “I am totally fine with diversity of skin color display, just not represented with rainbow colors.”

Jessi Dobson, a city employee who attends the same church as Miller, also weighed in. She texted Miller about the display, saying “This is not okay” and insisting that seeing the rainbow logo made her sick.

Wheeler removed the display, but the board met in July and voted to terminate her and Lancaster, the assistant librarian, saying they had lost confidence in the two.

The lawsuit asserts that the board has engaged in other examples of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment, including a claim that Miller objected to purchasing an award-winning book for the collection because it contained a nonbinary character. The board also voted against sponsoring the town’s Independence Day parade because one of the floats had an LGBTQ+ theme.

In other news about public libraries:

  • A public library in Virginia that was stripped of 75% of its funding after a dispute over LGBTQ+ books in its collection had the money restored after it agreed to put some titles on restricted access.

The Warren County Board of Supervisors pulled the funding for the Samuels Public Library in Front Royal in June but agreed to give it back during an Oct. 3 meeting, reported The Northern Virginia Daily. 

The library has been under siege by a local group called Clean Up Samuels, most of whose members attend a Catholic church in the county. In August, Library Director Michelle Ross resigned.

The board and the library agreed to a compromise plan. Under the plan, no LGBTQ+ books will be removed from the collection, but the library will create a new type of library card that allows parents to limit their children to certain sections of the library. The library will also create an “adult” section that can be visited only by patrons above age 16.  

  • A book for children about two siblings who read to each other and build a doghouse was flagged as potentially “sexually explicit” by an Alabama library merely because the author’s last name is “Gay.” 

The book, Read Me a Story, Stella, by Marie-Louise Gay, was on a list of 233 titles to be reviewed and possibly removed from the collection or moved to another part of the library at the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library, reported the news site

Library officials admitted that a mistake was made. The system’s executive director, Cindy Hewitt, told the news site, “Obviously, we’re not going to touch that book for any reason.”

A group called Clean Up Alabama has targeted 102 books it insists are sexually explicit. Read Me a Story, Stella was not on the list. Library officials had planned to review some of the titles, but pulled back after community members complained that the list was heavily slanted toward titles with LGBTQ+ characters and themes.

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