West Virginia resident Jeff Smith holds up the book "Let's Talk About it: The Teen's Guide to Sex, Relationships and Being Human" as an example of obscene material that should not be legally protected by public libraries and schools during a public hearing on proposed obscenity legislation at the West Virginia State Capitol in Charleston, W.Va., on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. Source: Perry Bennett/West Virginia Legislative via AP

West Virginia GOP Majority Pushes Contentious Bills Arming Teachers, Restricting Bathrooms, Books

Leah Willingham READ TIME: 4 MIN.

West Virginia's Republican-dominated Legislature pushed forward a slate of contentious bills Wednesday that would arm teachers, allow people to sue libraries over books that offend them and restrict where transgender kids can use the bathroom at school.

Described by conservatives as efforts to protect children while they learn, the legislation comes as GOP-led state Legislatures across the country are embracing bills expanding gun rights and restricting LGBTQ+ rights.

"This is the only way really that I can see to defend these students," Republican Del. Bill Ridenour said before lawmakers in the House Education Committee greenlit the bill allowing K-12 public school staff with concealed carry licenses to volunteer to carry firearms on campuses.

All three bills are opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia. The state's only LGBTQ+ advocacy organization has decried the bathroom and book proposals.

The bills that would allow teachers to carry guns in schools and bar transgender kids from using bathrooms that align with their gender identity were easily passed by a House legislative committee and must get approval from another before being advanced to the full chamber.

During the debate on the bathroom bill, Republicans shot down an amendment from a Democrat that would have allowed students to use the bathroom that corresponds with the gender on their most current birth certificate.

No GOP lawmaker provided a detailed explaination about why they supported the measure, but lead sponsor and school teacher Del. Dave Foggin said people have complained at his school about students' bathroom use. Democratic Del. Mike Pushkin, who is chair of the state's minority party, said he wasn't buying it.

"It's not just harmless election year red meat type of legislation, because it does have the potential to harm children," Pushkin said, adding that transgender youth are more likely to be bullied in a public restroom. At least 10 other states have laws restricting transgender students' bathroom use.

In 2020, the Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a Virginia school board's transgender bathroom ban was unconstitutional. West Virginia is in the 4th Circuit's jurisdiction.

During a public hearing hosted by the House Judiciary Committee, librarians, parents and teachers expressed fear and concern surrounding the book bill, which has yet to come before lawmakers for a vote. It would make schools, public libraries and museums criminally liable for distributing or displaying "obscene" materials to children.

Eli Baumwell, interim executive director for the ACLU of West Virginia, said existing legal precedent provides a narrow definition for proving obscenity that prohibits banning material that has cultural, educational or historical value.

Over the years, conservative officials across the country have increasingly tried to limit the type of books that children are exposed to, including books that address structural racism and LGBTQ+ issues. Last year alone, more than 120 different proposals were introduced in state legislatures targeting libraries, librarians, educators and access to materials, according to EveryLibrary, a national political action committee.

People speaking in favor of the proposed policy said kids are being exposed to immoral content at libraries and schools and read passages and showed photos in books checked out from their local or school libraries' young adult section depicting sexual acts and sexual anatomy.

Carol Butler described a passage from "Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out," a critically-acclaimed book that has been banned in several U.S. school districts, where it has been deemed anti-family and inappropriate for children.

"We need to return to a God-fearing country again," she said. "Do you think God is happy with this?"

Other supporters chaffed at accusations that they are trying to ban books. Carol Miley, a former elementary school librarian who retired in 2011, said the proposal is really about "protecting our minor students from being abused."

She said the past few years visiting libraries, she's noticed books with "vulgar descriptions of sexual acts, filthy language and pornographic depictions," many in "books that describe homosexual acts and relationships."

"Many of the offensive titles are even award winners," she said. "The community standards against obscenity are being openly mocked and defied."

Those opposed called the policy unconstitutional and referenced descriptions of rape, assault and other violent acts depicted in the Bible, calling supporters relying on religious justification for the policy hypocritical. Librarians said they operate with limited resources as it is, and are concerned about increased costs associated with insurance and legal representation.

Megan Tarbett, president of the West Virginia Library Association, said "putting the threat of jail time in front of our staff" as they select books does not "foster a collaborative spirit between staff and patrons."

Educator Mickey Blackwell holds up the books "Howl" and "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" – novels written in America during the early 2000s and 1880s, respectively, that have been subject to obscenity allegations.

Parents are responsible for deciding what their children should or should not be allowed to read, said Blackwell, who is the executive director of the West Virginia Association of Middle and Elementary School Principals. "Throw a few of them in jail and see how it goes," he quipped as he finished his remarks.

Andrew Schneider, executive director of LGBTQ-advocacy nonprofit Fairness West Virginia, said, "LGBTQ-plus people are not obscene. The stories and books about our lives are not obscene" and nothing in the proposed bill changes that.

"But let's be clear," Schneider said. "This is a bad bill. It's clear that some lawmakers want to eliminate any mention of LGBTQ-plus people in our schools museums and libraries, and although this bill won't accomplish that goal, it could have a chilling effect on free speech."

Barbara Steinke said she fears a book like "Heather Has Two Moms" might be considered obscene because it depicts a child with two mothers like her son has.

"There are many age-appropriate books and art that relate to different forms of families. If it's not a traditional family, does that make it obscene? Who decides?"

by Leah Willingham

Read These Next