This article is part of a Special Edition, which you can see here.
Evangelicals have long made it a project to erase democracy and replace it with their very narrow, very vicious theocracy. In the last few years, they’ve accelerated their attacks on our core shared public information sources: schools and libraries.
They’re succeeding at an alarming rate. Taken together, their efforts are destroying not just our public information spaces, but the very idea of a pluralist democracy.
The American concept of public education is one of a public good, a common starting point, and a resource available to everyone. Conservatives seek to unwind those things, to dismantle a society that acknowledges and encourages different views. Their vision of the world is that either you are under the protection of their particular God, or you are outside of society entirely. Public schools and public libraries can either get on board with being a tool of brutalization and censorship, or they can get crushed.
Curriculum attacks are rampant, and the people behind them aren’t hiding the ball. Their goal is no less than the erasure of the marginalized. For example, the Texas State Board of Education bowed to conservative pressure and won’t be updating its social studies curriculum standards until 2025—despite the fact they haven’t been updated in over a decade. Conservatives blocked the proposed standards because they had information about the history of the LGBTQ pride movement and discussed same-sex marriage.
What do conservatives want in its place? As KUT Radio reported: “Texas heritage” and “American exceptionalism.” It’s a literal deletion of this country’s LGBTQ history.
Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law has been in effect since March, barring classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for children in kindergarten through third grade. Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis said teaching kindergartners “they can be whatever they want to be” was “inappropriate” for children.
House Republicans have already authored a nationwide “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and while it’s sure to stay stalled while the Democrats control the Senate and the White House, there’s no telling what could happen post-2024, given the staunch GOP commitment to eradicating LGBTQ people from public life. Like the Florida bill, it would outlaw “sexually oriented” education for anyone younger than 10 years old, but that term is defined so broadly as to include discussions of sexual orientation, gender identity, dysphoria, and trans identity. Along with the threat of yanking federal funds from schools that violate the law, it comes with the private enforcement mechanism first used in Texas’s SB 8 abortion law. Anyone can sue the offending district in federal court.
Longtime practice of trying to erase history
This isn’t the first time K-12 schools have been used to inoculate students against compassion for the LGBTQ community or to ensure they never feel safe enough to come out. As Logan Casey of the Movement Advantage Project explained about the 1980s and 1990s to PBS, “Once the HIV epidemic came into the picture, then a bunch of states started considering and enacting laws that banned instruction on sexuality and homosexuality in public education” to create “fear and prejudice.” Years before that, it spurred people like Anita Bryant and John Briggs, who pushed a 1978 California initiative that would have banned gay and lesbian teachers from working in public schools.
These bills aren’t limited just to being anti-LGBTQ. There’s also Oklahoma Sen. Rob Standridge’s proposed Students’ Religious Belief Protection Act, which would prohibit schools from employing anyone who promotes positions “in opposition to closely held religious beliefs of students.” Somehow, it seems unlikely Standridge is genuinely interested in ensuring the religious freedom of, say, Jewish or Muslim children.
The act takes a page out of the Texas SB 8 playbook as well. Private citizens could sue the offending teachers and receive $10,000 in damages per incident. The bill includes a likely unconstitutional passage that school personnel must pay from their own pocket and not “receive any assistance from individuals or groups.” It’s a bill designed to create the same sort of fear that SB 8 did for people who might “aid or abet” an abortion: You can never really know if your actions will fall under the reach of the law, so it’s better to not even come close to the line.
Should laws like this pass, teachers will only be safe if they teach nothing whatsoever that might trigger unhappiness in a theocratic parent or community member. Moreover, then Oklahoma can neatly claim the state isn’t suppressing speech (and therefore creating a potential First Amendment issue)—it’s just providing a private mechanism for theocrats to bankrupt teachers.
Expanding censorship beyond the schoolyard
Libraries are also facing similar attacks. Hundreds of school districts have been faced with demands they remove scores of books about gender, sexuality, and race.
A spreadsheet maintained by the EveryLibrary Institute at Censorship Attacks shows over 4,000 attempted challenges of books during the 2021-2022 school year, and 2022-2023 challenges will have exceeded 400 by the time you read this. PEN America found that 138 school districts in 32 states enacted school book bans from July 2021 to July 2022. More than 40 percent of the books banned either have LGBTQ themes or characters, and 40 percent of books banned feature prominent characters of color.
Not only are public school libraries under attack, but community public libraries are too, particularly when those libraries make space for LGBTQ children and their families. In July, the Proud Boys—a white supremacist group—attacked a drag queen story hour being held at San Lorenzo, California’s public library, with one of the protesters wearing a “Kill Your Local Pedophile” shirt. In St. Paul, Minnesota, it wasn’t just that the Proud Boys showed up—librarians received death threats prior to the public library hosting a drag queen story time event.
In Vinton, Iowa, a public library had to close for a week after much of the staff resigned. They’d been attacked by community members who said the library was not representing the town well because it had LGBTQ staff. Community members also insisted the library get more Christian content.
And in Jamestown, Michigan, the town defunded its public library after the library refused to remove LGBTQ books. The campaign against funding the library was helmed by the chair of the town’s planning commission, who told Bridge Michigan he only wanted library board members with a “Judeo-Christian mindset.”
The collapse of church and state
The thread that runs through all of these laws and events is the triumph of evangelical theocracy over plurality and diversity, the triumph of violence over accommodation. It’s telling people there is only one way to be American—and that’s to subscribe to an inflexible view of Christianity.
And why not? There’s a Supreme Court majority more than willing to turn public schools into Christian ones. In the last term alone, the Court’s conservative supermajority held that it is fine for a football coach at a public high school to have a giant community prayer circle during football games and that states must give taxpayer money to private religious schools. We’re watching the collapse of the wall between church and state, and the Court isn’t just fine with it—they’re the drivers of it.
Ultimately, all of these things work together to de-democratize public spaces. Public schools and public libraries are supposed to be for literally everyone in a community. They’re living organisms meant to grow and expand to include all the people who need them. Instead, they’re contracting, being made small and vicious and exclusionary.
When you erase the history of a people, you begin to erase their presence in the present. Their participation in society is profoundly limited. LGBTQ children are robbed of the opportunity to learn that they’re not alone in the world and that there is a rich history of their elders who made the world safe for them. Instead, they learn that any queer adult who might make the path less harrowing is a “groomer.” They learn self-loathing and fear, to their very core.
Adults fare no better. If the larger society doesn’t welcome you, you return to smaller spaces that feel safe. But those spaces are under attack as well. It’s not enough for theocracy to push people out. Those people who fall outside of it need to be shunned at best and destroyed at worst.
And this vicious exclusion has violent consequences: Five dead, at least 25 injured at a queer bar two weeks ago in Colorado Springs, Colorado, an epicenter of Christian conservatism and the home of Focus on the Family. It’s exactly the sort of place that is duty-bound to drive LGBTQ people out of its midst. This was always going to happen.