From books to religion, Georgia conservatives renew focus on school culture

A new group, Georgians for Responsible Libraries, rallied at the Georgia Capitol on Feb. 1, 2024. They seek to restrict student access to books and other material they think is obscene. (Ty Tagami / ty.tagami@ajc.com)

Credit: Ty Tagami

Credit: Ty Tagami

A new group, Georgians for Responsible Libraries, rallied at the Georgia Capitol on Feb. 1, 2024. They seek to restrict student access to books and other material they think is obscene. (Ty Tagami / ty.tagami@ajc.com)

After last year’s lull in Georgia’s culture warfare over education, the conservative push to regulate what students are exposed to in schools is back.

In 2022, Republican state lawmakers pushed through a “divisive concepts” law, a “parent’s bill of rights” and a streamlined process for removing books from school libraries. They slowed down last year, focusing instead on collaboration with Democrats to overhaul literacy instruction.

But this year, with lawmakers up for reelection, Republicans have more than a dozen bills that seek to purge what many conservatives see as extreme liberal ideology from classrooms and libraries. The wave of legislation would expose school librarians to criminal prosecution. It would have schools replace counselors with chaplains. It would sharpen the line between boys and girls, with implications for bathrooms.

Lawmakers earlier this month discussed a GOP-backed bill that would prohibit any financial relationships between school and other public libraries and the American Library Association.

Conservatives criticize the organization for promoting literature about gender identity, with their latest salvos aimed at the organization’s president, who declared on social media she is a “Marxist lesbian” and later deleted the post. Liberals, meanwhile, say parents, not schools, should decide what children get to read, and that banning books would limit access for all.

Activists who helped propel several polarizing school laws in 2022 are back in force, coalescing around a new group called Georgians for Responsible Libraries. They rallied at the Georgia Capitol in early February to hear Texas minister and podcaster Jaco Booyens speak.

They cheered when Booyens said they weren’t trying to ban books. “This is a ban on exposing and exploiting children,” he said. “This is a ban on giving Satan literally a foothold in the life of a developing child.”

Critics say these people are targeting marginalized students who are already at risk of bullying and suicide.

Jeff Graham has led Georgia Equality for 16 years and said he has never seen so much legislation focused on his LGBTQ+ community.

“We’re extremely concerned about what might be coming,” he said.

Here are some of the bills:

Gender

Senate Bill 88 has nearly a dozen Republican co-sponsors in the Senate, including two among the chamber’s GOP leadership. When it was filed last year, critics likened it to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation. It was amended and presented last summer as a mandate for private schools, requiring them to obtain parental permission before “addressing issues of gender identity, queer theory, gender ideology, or gender transition” with students 15 and under. A Senate panel last week approved the measure 6-3 on a party-line vote, with Republicans supporting the legislation.

Georgia state Sen. Carden Summers, a Cordele Republican, speaks in the Senate at the Capitol in Atlanta on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. On Wednesday, March 1, 2023, the Senate Education and Youth Committee tabled his legislation, Senate Bill 88, that would have prohibited discussions about gender identity in schools without parent approval. It is back in play this year. (Arvin Temkar/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

Senate Bill 141, co-sponsored by over a dozen GOP senators including three in leadership, would require that nurses, counselors and other public and private school staff inform parents when students question their gender. It would also prohibit medical interventions that alter appearances inconsistent with birth sex.

House Bill 836 and House Bill 936 require restrooms and changing areas designated for exclusive use for boys and girls, with a “reasonable accommodation,” such as a single-occupancy room for those “unwilling or unable” to use group spaces. Each have a half dozen Republican co-sponsors in the House of Representatives.

House Bill 1045, with a half dozen Republican co-sponsors in the House, is similar to SB 141.

Religion

Senate Bill 379 would let schools hire chaplains — or bring them in as volunteers — to do the work of counselors. There are nearly a dozen Republican co-sponsors, including one from Senate leadership and one who is a floor leader for Gov. Brian Kemp.

Books

Senate Bill 154 has more than 20 Republican co-sponsors, five of them Senate leaders. It seeks to expose school librarians to criminal prosecution for the distribution of materials deemed “harmful to minors.” That sort of material has long been defined in law, but librarians have been exempt from prosecution. Librarians in public libraries and in higher education would still be exempt.

Senate Bill 365 also has more than 20 GOP co-sponsors, including four in Senate leadership and one Kemp floor leader. It would require, with parent consent, that schools send an email whenever a child borrows school library material. It would also allow a complaint process for those who come across materials in classrooms, libraries or extracurricular activities that they think is harmful to minors. And it would require that schools share more information about students with their parents, eliminating an exemption for when information “cannot reasonably be made available.”

SPRINGFIELD, GA - DECEMBER 21, 2023: The Springfield Library, a branch of the Savannah-based Live Oak Public Libraries, is the latest target of opponents of LGBTQ titled books and expanding the debate over what materials are appropriate in Georgia libraries. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Senate Bill 390, co-sponsored by nearly two dozen Republican senators, including five in leadership and one Kemp floor leader, would compel public libraries, including those in schools, to sever ties with the American Library Association. And it would ban use of the organization for accreditation in higher education. That would pretty much destroy Valdosta State University’s graduate program for librarians, the state’s main library program. David Slykhuis, the dean there, said during a hearing that almost all U.S. libraries require an accredited degree for most professional library positions. “The loss of the ability to remain accredited would devastate a program that is bringing in over $3.5 million in tuition revenue to Valdosta State annually.”

Senate Bill 394, backed by over a dozen GOP senators, including four in leadership, would create a new “restricted” category for school material, defining it as anything sexually explicit and not required by state standards or advanced curricula. School districts would designate what’s restricted, based on standards developed and reviewed annually by the Georgia Board of Education. Schools would have to post information online about any restricted content in their libraries. Also, sexually explicit material, which is already defined in law, could no longer be acquired by school libraries. Younger students wouldn’t have access and older students would need parent permission.

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