The Missouri legislature is back in session, and so are the culture wars.
A Republican lawmaker from Neosho sparked the latest fight this week with a bill he says grew out of concerns with "drag queen story hours" at public libraries.
Rep. Ben Baker’s plan would require libraries to create review boards to regulate those kinds of events and anything else in the library considered “age-inappropriate sexual material.”
Libraries that refuse would be cut off from state money — and individual librarians could be jailed.
The five-member review boards would hold public hearings on questioned material and then decide whether to make it unavailable to some or all minors.
Baker told the News-Leader he’s trying to give parents who disagree with library programming a way to change things.
“I’m trying figure out a way for parents to have recourse if something's happened and actually the library board is saying 'Hey, we're OK with this' or even promoting it, which has happened,” Baker said.
The Springfield-Greene County Library District has not hosted any drag queen story hours, but libraries in St. Louis, Kansas City and St. Josephhave.
Shira Berkowitz, a spokeswoman for the LGBTQ advocacy group PROMO, said the events give young people an important opportunity to see LGBTQ individuals in a positive light in a public place.
“We think that visibility is really, really important,” she said. “Especially in a state where LGBTQ people can still be denied housing or fired because of who they are.”
Not everyone is happy, though.
A conservative Catholic group protested an event in St. Joseph in September, and people planned to protest another event in St. Louis the same month.
Libraries aren't happy with Baker's idea.
In a statement, Missouri Library Association President Cynthia Dudenhoffer said her organization “will always stand against censorship and for the freedom to read, and therefore opposes Missouri House Bill 2044.”
She added that libraries already have ways to help people protect their children without “infringing upon the rights of other patrons or restricting materials."
“Missouri Library Association will always oppose legislation that infringes on these rights.”
Jim Schmidt, associate director at the Springfield-Greene County Library District, agreed with that statement.
He also pointed out that his district, like most in the state, already has a governing board that holds public meetings where anyone can show up and question policies.
"We have a means for anyone to speak at any meeting we have and our board is always happy to hear from anyone," Schmidt said. "I don’t understand why we’d want to have an additional board on top of that."
The blowback isn’t just coming from Missouri. James Tager of PEN America, a New York nonprofit dedicated to defending free expression, called the idea “a shockingly transparent attempt to legalize book banning in the state of Missouri” in a statement to the Washington Post.
Baker said he’s not trying to ban books and pointed out parents could still check out any book and provide it to their kids if they think it’s appropriate.
“What's happening now is that publishers and authors are determining what's age-appropriate,” he said. “I think parents should weigh in on that content.”
He added that he would also be OK with private groups holding drag queen story hours in libraries' meeting rooms.
Baker seemed more sympathetic to people who don’t like his penalties for library employees who defy board orders, though.
The bill says they would be guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by a $500 fine or a year in county jail.
“I wanted to send a strong message that we need to protect our kids and we need to do something about this, but that's all negotiable,” Baker said. “The language is not finished and it hasn't been to committee yet.”
Baker, a minister and former dean of Ozark Bible Institute, is no stranger to taking stands for his beliefs.
Last year, he attracted scrutiny for pushing a bill encouraging public schools to offer elective courses on the Bible and requiring the state’s K-12 education agency to write up curriculum for the classes.
The bill passed the House but died in the Senate.
Baker’s library review board bill is House Bill 2044.