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Bill targeting ‘obscene’ books in schools clears Kentucky Legislature

Jess Clark
Activist Miranda Stovall at her appeal to have the book "Gender Queer" removed from JCPS libraries in July 2022.

Kentucky lawmakers sent a controversial bill criticized as a “book-banning” measure to the desk of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear Wednesday night.

After more than an hour of heated debate, the measure, Senate Bill 5, cleared the GOP-controlled House 80-18. All Republicans supported the measure, joined by one Democrat, Martin Rep. Ashley Tackett Laferty. The remaining Democrats present voted against the bill.

The vote took place as Republican leaders of the legislature are rushing to pass bills ahead of Beshear’s 10-day veto period, which begins Friday.

If Beshear vetoes the measure, lawmakers can easily override the move when they return for the final two days of the legislative session on March 29 and 30.

SB 5 would create a process for parents to challenge books, instructional materials and school events they believe are “harmful” to minor because they:

  • Depict “in an obscene manner” nudity or sexual acts; or
  • Taken as a whole, appeal to the prurient interest in sex; or 
  • Is patently offensive to prevailing standards regarding what is suitable for minors.

Supporters say the measure would protect children from viewing materials they consider “pornographic.” Opponents say it amounts to censorship and is intended to make it easier to ban books that center LGBTQ characters.

School librarians across the U.S. are seeing record requests to remove books from their shelves. Most of the titles targeted center LGBTQ voices, or are written by Black or Latino authors.

“You may hear that this is book banning,” said Shepherdsville Republican Rep. Russell Webber, who sponsored the bill in the House. “This is not a book banning bill. This is a bill designed to give parents an opportunity to voice their concerns and to protect their children.”

Many Republican supporters of the bill expressed disgust with mostly unnamed examples of “pornographic” material they say they’ve seen in schools.

Speaking against the measure, Democratic Rep. Josie Raymond, of Louisville, said she had looked over the so-called “obscene” materials supporters of SB 5 were circulating. Most she said, discussed sexual assault, sex abuse, incest or human trafficking.

“They were not meant to arouse. They were not arousing,” Raymond said. “They address real challenges that many of our students sadly do need to see represented so they know that they are not alone, they are not to blame, and they are not ruined.”

The only book that supporters of SB5 mentioned by name was “Gender Queer,” a graphic memoir about growing up trans and nonbinary. The book has been the target of challenges across the country, including in Jefferson County.

While most Democrats said the measure went too far, some conservative Republicans said during debate they didn’t feel it went far enough.

Republican Rep. Josh Calloway of Irvington made a lengthy and fervent plea to attach an amendment to the bill that included much of House Bill 173, a sweeping measure that sought to target LGBTQ-inclusive school policies.

“We're talking about our kids. We're talking about protecting their innocence. We're talking about making sure that our kids’ minds are not being perverted, and that our kids are not being indoctrinated,” Calloway said.

Republican House Speaker David Osborne and the rest of the chamber rejected requests for several of Calloway’s floor amendments to be considered, on grounds they were not germane to the bill’s topic or that they were filed too late.

“Somewhere somebody is blocking us as a majority that want to do something meaningful — they are blocking us from letting that happen!” he said.

The debate exposed a rift over how far Republican lawmakers are willing to go with anti-LGBTQ bills in the legislature.

In the Senate, lawmakers voted to scale back some anti-trans policies in House Bill 470, a expansive anti-trans bill that would ban gender affirming medical care for minors and ban school policies that require teachers to use kids’ preferred pronouns.

But after a narrow majority of senators voted to adopt the amendment, they suddenly voted to halt debate on the measure and come back to it later. The chamber adjourned shortly thereafter.

Following the day’s proceedings, GOP Senate President Robert Stivers said the bill might be resurrected on Thursday, but lawmakers still needed to negotiate a final agreement.

“I think there was a lack of knowledge as to what all the amendments and the subject matter meant. This is not the easiest of subject matter topics,” Stivers said.

Support for this story was provided in part by theJewish Heritage Fund.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at