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Prattville library becomes battleground for book-banning culture war

A group of Prattville parents challenged the inclusion of LGBTQ books in the children’s section of the Autauga-Prattville Public Library.

Prattville, Alabama Jackie Nix/Adobe
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For the past several months, a growing number of Prattville residents have been calling for the Autauga-Prattville Public Library and the Prattville City Council to remove certain books with LGBTQ+ content.

It all started with The Pronoun Book. 

That’s what Hannah Mann Rees, one of the Prattville mothers who originated the challenge, told APR last week.

Rees got that information secondhand; she told APR that another Prattville mother allowed her son to check out the book, thinking it focused on pronouns in the sense of grammatical structure.

“She thought ‘Oh, this will be perfect,’ it had a cute little picture on the front,” Rees said. “She took it home. It was a board book—she didn’t think to double-check what was in it.”

The woman’s son reportedly interrupted her while making dinner, sharing that the book said you “have to ask people what their pronouns are.”

The book itself is mainly illustrations. It begins with a question: “How do you know what someone wants to be called?” The answer continues on the next page: “Ask.” The book continues to show illustrations of different people who could be called “he” or “she.” Some of these people have traits that might typically be associated with the opposite pronoun.

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“She was telling me about it and I said, ‘You know, if there’s that, there is probably more.’ It took me down this investigation of looking on our library website for books of a similar nature and I became increasingly alarmed by the number of (such) books recently added to our catalog.”

The group ultimately found six books to immediately submit for reconsideration, with an estimated 80 total books being reviewed for content by the group.

The six books included in the initial complaint include: “Yes! No!” a children’s book on sexual consent; “Bye Bye, Binary,” a children’s book on gender expression; “Calvin,” a children’s story about a girl who identifies as a boy; “Being You: A First Conversation About Gender”; “Alice Austen Lived Here,” a book aged 12-14 about a non-binary teen who explores their identity; and the aforementioned “The Pronoun Book.”

Rees and the other mothers started their challenge at the library itself, with Rees calling a meeting with APPL director Lindsey Milam. 

“I sat down and shared my concerns with her,” Rees said. “I told her about why this is Biblically wrong and listed off various scientific evidence and reading I had done on why these books were completely inappropriate for children and harmful content.”

According to Rees, Milam informed her that not all other parents feel the same way, and that she would not move them, nor would she move them behind the circulation desk as that is not appropriate access to the books.

Instead, she suggested Rees fill out a “reconsideration of materials” form, triggering a process in which a three-person committee would review the book and make a recommendation. And if the filer is not satisfied, they can then take the issue before the full library board.

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Rees did just that, and the committee recommended only moving one book; the full board decided to move three books to sections on gender and sexual abnormality, but those books remained in the children’s section. That didn’t satisfy Rees or any other parents involved.

“That is what took us to the city council,” Rees said. 

Fight moves from library to the Prattville City Council

“The board obviously in our minds had violated that they were not going to protect our children,” Rees continued. “The board really has no say. They don’t have to answer to us moms or us dads. The city council appoints them and gives the funding to the library.”

At the first council meeting in May, Rees spoke publicly for the first time, stating that the six books being presented are “filled with false ideas about gender, and force children into inappropriate conversations about sexuality.”

“Children are not sexual by nature,” Rees said “In their formative years when children should be reading books of virtue, character and adventure, instead they are being bombarded by books of a political nature.”

Rees also read an excerpt from another book, which has since been submitted to the library for reconsideration, titled “Nick and Charlie.” 

“I asked if he should take his clothes off,” Rees read. “He was saying yes before I finished my sentence. He’s pulling off my T-shirt, laughing when I can’t undo his shirt buttons. He’s undoing my belt. I’m reaching into his bedside drawer for a condom.”

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Rees said the book is labeled for upper elementary students.

District 5 Councilman Blair Gornto voiced his agreement that some of the books “definitely don’t need to mingled in with other children’s books,” he also said it wasn’t the council’s place to be deciding what books the library has in circulation.

District 6 Councilman Robert Strichik echoed that sentiment.

“I don’t think it’s the business of the city council to get into what book is on the library shelf, or any religious beliefs,” Strichik said.

At that first May meeting, supporters of relocating the books were outnumbered by residents voicing opposition to moving the books.

“There’s more than one kind of concerned parent in Prattville,” Prattville resident Angie Hayden told the council. “As a mother of a gay child, I take this all very seriously. I believe that we run the risk of letting a very small, loud minority that find offense in the fact that gay people not only exist but that they no longer have to be relegated to the shadows … The passage (Rees) just read from that (Nick and Charlie), you could read very similar things in Twilight—the only difference is it was a girl and boy instead of two boys or two girls.”

Hayden also told the council it is not only the right of a parent to police what their children read, it is their duty— “not anyone up here, not the librarian.”

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“Objections that they have based on their personal beliefs should not affect the access to the community as a whole,” Hayden said. “In short, if they want to place their children in a bubble, that’s their work. Not ours, not yours.”

Wayne Lambert, a member of the library board, said the library is “doing their thing.”

“My thoughts is, as a parent, you’re the parent, you guide your child,” Lambert said. “The library is there to provide diversity, just like in churches, everyone has different religions and you respect each other’s religions and you respect everyone’s difference.”

Opposition grows louder at second city council meeting

The tone shifted at the second council meeting in May, despite the council’s continued stance that it would not become involved in setting the circulation of the library.

“I thought we made it clear last meeting there is nothing we can do as a city council on this matter so I’m confused why … we’re sitting here listening to issues about the library when there’s nothing we can do as a council,” Gornto said.

“We do allow public comment during this session where someone, if they so chose could come forward for three minutes and say ‘the sky is blue’ as many times as they could say ‘the sky is blue’ and end the three minutes time,” responded Council President Lora Lee Boone. “While I am in agreement with you that they are speaking to the wind while the library committee is who they should be speaking with, that is where we are legally, we have opened this comment time and we are standing with it at this time.”

“I suppose I’ll be speaking to the wind,” retorted resident Lee Warren. “Since apparently you hav no influence over the library board or its operation.”

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Warren came in opposition to the “LGBTQ advocacy that’s occurring at the public library” and said “the civil magistrate is ordained by God and given the authority to punish evildoers and to promote that which is good and righteous in their communities” and are accountable to God for how they perform that task.

DJ Parten told the council that it has the authority over the library board and that the board is only accountable to the council. 

“That’s why we’re in this room today asking you to do something to protect our children from obscene materials,” Parten said. “What one woman read at the last meeting was outright pornographic and the fact that our children can pick that book up at the public library using our tax dollars that you have given the library is appalling. It’s unacceptable.”

Parten asked the city to adopt an ordinance forbidding anyone from allowing children access to obscene or pornographic material, as well as preventing any entity receiving city funding from “providing minors with access to materials promoting controversial and divisive concepts like radical gender ideology or woke ideology.”

He also asked the council to provide the name of the person at the library responsible for choosing material and asked the council to withhold appointments and any request for funding “until this matter is resolved.”

Parten founded an organization in 2021 that was heavily involved in drafting a controversial bill introduced in the Alabama House of Representatives this year that would allow women who obtain an abortion to be prosecuted under homicide law. The bill never made it to committee.

“We’ve heard the point being made that the LGBT exposure in books should be treated just like any other relational exposure in books like men and women, moms and dads, boyfriends and girlfriends and husbands and wives.and the use of natural pronouns reflective of biology like he and him and she and her,” said Prattville resident Trey Perkins. “It is essentially arguing that the LGBTQ should be treated as natural; however, the LGBTQ is unnatural … These books have their place in the library, just not mixed in with he rest of the children’s books being disguised as safe and innocent when in reality they are harmful, perverse and inappropriate for minors due to the nature of their context. These books present an unnatural view of sexuality that once seen by minors cannot be unseen.”

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Laura Clark, a former lawyer turned stay-at-home mom, warned the council of one of the “most famous cases of a government washing their hands.”

“(Pontius) Pilate,” she said. “Don’t be that government.”

Clark told the council that the library board “wants to do about as much as you do” (meaning nothing) and challenged the council to pass an ordinance, with a warning attached: “If you don’t, believe me, I am working on a bill right now with the Legislature to make sure that happens and I will ask that it is named after Prattville— and that’s not the name you want.”

Her husband, Matthew Clark, told the council he is the president of The Alabama Center for Law and Liberty that he said “spearheaded an effort to shoot down an LGBT non-discrimination ordinance in Montgomery.” He compared the situation to the Colorado case of a cake baker who declined to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. 

He advised multiple options for how the city council could deal with the situation. One would be to pass an ordinance to designate the books to be in their own section, or it could pass resolution to  “declare these things that are sneaking into the kids’ section and ambushing ids are a public nuisance and order their abatement.”

He also suggested cutting funding just for these types of books, or to appoint some of the people opposing the books to the library board.

‘Scientific evidence’ comes from controversial pediatrician group

When it comes to the legal question of whether libraries could censor such content, either vie removal or reclassification, science-based concerns would be expected to hold more weight than religious beliefs.

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When asked, Rees told APR that much of her scientific research comes from the American College of Pediatricians (ACPEDs).

“There’s good information on gender dysphoria and exposing children to sexual content,” Rees said. “There’s a whole bunch of really good information on there.”

The group is a small offshoot of the 67,000-member Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP), splitting from the primary group in 2002 over AAP’s endorsement of adoption by same-sex couples. About 60 members broke away to form the group, which now numbers as much as 1,200. It is labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

ACPeds’ founder, Dr. Joseph Zanga, described it as a “Judeo-Christian, traditional values” organization, “open to pediatric medical professionals of all religions who hold true to the group’s core beliefs: that life begins at conception; and that the traditional family unit, headed by an opposite-sex couple, poses far fewer risk factors in the adoption and raising of children.”

In a 2017 interview on Tucker Carlson Tonight, then-ACPEDS president Dr. Michelle Cretella called transgender ideology “child abuse.” 

“ … by feeding children and families these lies, children are having their normal psychological development interrupted … This is child abuse. It’s not health care.”

Many of the group’s position statements fall closely or directly in line with Alabama’s current arguments before a federal court in the middle district of Alabama. 

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U.S District Judge Liles C. Burke, a Trump appointee, issued an injunction on the Alabama law days after it took effect, finding that plaintiffs challenging the law were likely to win the case on the merits and that enacting the law would cause irreparable harm to transgender youth.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the court was correct to enjoin the law, pointing again to the harm that would befall transgender youth if they did not receive care.

“The district court found, and defendants do not dispute, that the minor plaintiffs would suffer ‘severe physical and/or psychological harm’ in the absence of an injunction …,” the court wrote. “Meanwhile, Alabama points only to protecting minors from harms that may or may not happen in the future— potential regret over gender-affirming care in adulthood and the potential for lost fertility or sexual function … These types of speculative harms cannot outweigh the actual, imminent harm to transgender minors in Alabama if defendants enforce SB184.”

Prattville is a microcosm of recent statewide politics

During her interview with APR, Rees pointed to the ouster of Barbara Cooper, Alabama’s secretary of Early Childhood Education, by Gov. Kay Ivey over a “woke” preschool teacher resource book.

“That’s showing, to me, that Kay Ivey seems to be agreeable with what we’re doing here,” Rees said.

That book did have LGBT content that Ivey found objectionable, namely that “LGBTQIA+ need to hear and see messages that promote equality, dignity and worth.”

But Ivey also criticized the manual for indicating that there are “larger systemic forces that perpetuate systems of White privilege” or that ‘the United States is built on systemic and structural racism.”

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When asked if the concerned citizens are also reviewing books for this content, Rees said the group is currently focusing on sexual content and LGBT issues, but that those kinds of issues are also “something we’re looking at.”

Both LGBT and “critical race theory” have been under the scope in recent legislative sessions under a bill by Rep. Ed Oliver, R-Dadeville, that would seek to ensure “divisive concepts” are not taught in Alabama classrooms or other agencies. 

Rees said the “sexually explicit line is an obvious one; a sexual act that is described is obviously inappropriate for minors.” But with the gender ideology, Rees leaned on the idea that it isn’t something children can comprehend. Other critics of it, as noted earlier, said the library should stay away from such “divisive concepts.”

House Majority Leader Scott Stadthagen, R-Hartselle, chimed in to give his backing to the concerned parents during an interview on Mobile radio FM Talk 106.5.

“I just read about a petition in Prattville to try to ban some inappropriate books that are in their school systems,” he said, incorrectly swapping in school systems for the public library. “Hats off to them. That’s something, as parents, we need to make sure what our kids are digesting that it’s appropriate. And that is our job as parents. For a kid to digest something that’s very inappropriate that their parents wouldn’t approve of in the school system — I mean, how many times am I able to go with my daughter to the library at school? Not very often. So, we need to make sure that what is on the shelf is appropriate. That’s a sad thing to talk about, but we have to talk about it now.”

In the interview, Stadthagen also vowed to push through a ban on drag queens in public spaces where minors may be present in 2024, as the bill has stalled in the Legislature this year. He added in his priority to ban inappropriate books from schools across the state.

That bill has been a part of a recent package of bills in this session and last targeting the LGBTQ+ community.
In addition to all of the aforementioned legislation, a bill passed this year to ban transgender women from competing in college women’s sports. A bill defining sex and gender terms including “man” and “woman” died in the House in this legislative session, as did the divisive concepts bill and an expansion on the state’s version of a “Don’t Say Gay” bill banning discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity issues in the classroom. The bill would have extended the ban to eighth grade.

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Stadthagen had a bill pass last year that requires schoolchildren to use the bathroom of their sex assigned at birth, which was later amended to add on the current “Don’t Say Gay” law that prevents LGBT discussions through the third grade. 

And the fight over books is heating up all around the country, with an extremely concentrated group of individuals making up the bulk of the complaints, according to the Washington Post. 

The Post found that individuals making 10 or more complaints made up two-thirds of all challenges. 

“In some cases, these serial filers relied on a network of volunteers gathered together under the aegis of conservative parents’ groups such as Moms for Liberty,” the analysis reads.

What happens next?

The Autauga-Prattville Public Library updated its website on May 19 with a statement.

“The Library Board of Trustees has suspended the Reconsideration of Materials Policy as it relates to reconsideration forms recently submitted. The Board has decided that those books will go behind the circulation desk in the main library. This decision was reached to alleviate the current hostile environment for the library and its staff.”

Library officials did not immediately respond to APR’s request for further clarification of what hostility the library has faced, and whether the move is a long-term solution.

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Rees said she isn’t aware of what hostility the library might be referring to, but encouraged those in support of removing or relocating the books to remain respectful.

As for the move, Rees said she is happy to hear that the six books are now out of reach of children, but there is still a long fight ahead.

“That alleviates concerns for those six books,” Rees said. “But who is to say they don’t decide without a proper policy to put those books back on shelves a month or two from now?”

Plus, there have already been four more books submitted to the library for reconsideration, including “Nick and Charlie” as well as “The Meaning of Pride.”

The latter book is primarily pictorial, and includes illustrations of many well-known LGBTQ people. 

And then there’s the matter of the 70-or-so more books still being reviewed by the parents.

“We’re hoping to see policy changes and a couple of other steps that they are going to do what is right for kids,” Rees said. “Right now, the trust has been broken.”

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As for Angie Hayden, the Prattville mother that spoke in opposition to the reconsideration request, she doesn’t see an end in sight.

“These people are not going to stop, so eventually do we cave,” Hayden posited. “Or does this escalate? It seems to me this is the only way this goes. The speeches to me were so aggressive that maybe the council would start looking for ways to appease these people.

“Even if you believe some of these books go too far, why are we getting government involved? I’m sure there are currently books in the library I would take issue with on a personal level. That doesn’t mean I want no one to have access to them. I feel like, if we start, where do we stop?”

Jacob Holmes is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected]

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