Kentucky House approves book challenge bill after multiple attempts to alter it fail
FRANKFORT — The Kentucky House rejected pleas of some Republicans to add a ban on public drag shows and some parental rights provisions to a bill mandating a complaint process for parents to challenge school materials they consider “harmful to minors.”
Senate Bill 5, primarily sponsored by Sen. Jason Howell, R-Murray, came onto the House floor late Wednesday evening as a bill that Republicans have said is aimed at protecting children from books and programs they consider to be pornographic, specifically pointing to the book “Genderqueer: A Memoir.”
The graphic novel has been a common target of Republican-controlled state legislatures as they’ve pushed “parental rights bills” the past two years, and the novel deals with gender identity and sexuality.
The bill ultimately received final approval from the Kentucky House of Representatives in a party-line vote of 80-18, but not before lawmakers on both sides of the aisle gave passionate speeches, echoing previous comments made in the state Senate.
“You may hear that this is a book ban. This is not a book banning bill. This is a bill that is designed to give parents an opportunity to voice their concerns and to protect their children,” said Rep. Russell Webber, R-Sheperdsville, while advocating for the bill on the floor.
The bill defines “harmful to minors” as:
- “(a) Contains the exposure, in an obscene manner, of the unclothed or apparently unclothed human male or female genitals, pubic area, or buttocks or the female breast, or visual depictions of sexual acts or simulations of sexual acts, or explicit written descriptions of sexual acts;
- (b) Taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest in sex; or
- (c) Is patently offensive to prevailing standards regarding what is suitable material for minors.”
Parents or guardians of students would have to submit a complaint in writing to a school principal, who would have ten business days to determine if such a complaint met the definition of “harmful to minors” and meet with said parent or guardian about if such material, program or event would remain or be restricted or removed.
If a parent or guardian didn’t like the decision by the principal, they could appeal to the school board, which would be required to hold a public hearing about the matter within at least 30 calendar days. The decision and individual vote of the board on whether to restrict or remove the material, program or event would be published in the largest local newspaper.
Democrats and opponents of the bill — including the ACLU of Kentucky and the Kentucky Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers — have warned throughout its movement through the legislature that the bill would lead to banning books in schools, particularly books that include LGBTQ characters or themes.
Rep. Lisa Willner, D-Louisville, a former Jefferson County Public Schools board member, said she believed the legislation could be “enormously time-consuming” for school boards to potentially deal with complaints from parents on books among their other duties.
“I hear the assurances from the sponsor that this isn’t a book banning bill. I’ll tell you that there are a lot of voters in District 35 that think that’s exactly what this bill is,” Willner said. “It gives me some heartburn from that perspective that we’re, you know, heading down the slippery slope.”
Multiple amendments to change bill fail
Before the full House could vote on the bill, one Republican rose to passionately urge his GOP colleagues to approve several floor amendments he had filed that would have added language to the bill, including an attempt to revive a bill that would ban public drag shows in the state.
Rep. Josh Calloway, R-Irvington, said the chamber had the votes “to pass a meaningful and as strong of a parent’s protection and child protection bill as we want to pass.”
The Breckinridge County Republican in a winding, emotional speech over the course of at least a half hour proposed his amendments to the bill as he stated that the legislature had to make sure “that our kids’ minds are not being perverted.”
“We cannot let those things that are happening across our state continue. If we let them continue, you understand that we will get a point of no return. When it comes to the minds and the hearts of our pupils, they’re going to be our next leaders,” Calloway said.
He said that such efforts to strengthen parental rights kept getting blocked repeatedly.
His first attempt at adding a floor amendment to SB 5 was ruled out of order by House leadership because the scope of the language in the amendment — which involved statutes ranging from notifying parents of bullying and prohibiting children from vaccine requirements to attend school — wasn’t germane to the original bill, or “way beyond the scope of the title of this bill,” House Speaker David Osborne said.
That ruling by House leadership was appealed by another Republican lawmaker, only for the effort to include the amendment ultimately being voted down by the body. Other floor amendments by Calloway failed to receive the votes needed to suspend House rules to consider them because such floor amendments had been filed less than 24 hours before the full House vote on SB 5.
Webber, shouting at times, told his colleagues during one of the votes on Calloway’s amendments that adding new language to the bill at the last minute could potentially sink the entire piece of legislation.
“If we start adding things to a bill late in a session we run the risk of leaving the 2023 session with nothing — absolutely nothing accomplished,” Webber said.
Rep. Josie Raymond, D-Louisville, speaking after all of Calloway’s floor amendments had failed, said that she also had the desire to protect children.
“I will stand here and risk everything that I have for my children. We all love our own children the same. We do not all love other people’s children the same,” Raymond said.
Raymond said the problem with SB 5 wasn’t the process to challenge books or events, but the vagueness of the language of what is considered “harmful to minors.”
“It’s hard to define what’s patently offensive to prevailing standards, since it varies wildly county to county, neighborhood to neighborhood, household to household,” Raymond said. “This bill invites select parents to waste the time of principals, the money of school boards and to endanger the reputation of school board members.”
Rep. Killian Timoney, R-Nicholasville, a former high school teacher in Lexington, said he considered the bill to be “reasonable” and supported the bill because he wants books and other material in schools to be age-appropriate.
Despite voting for the bill, Timoney did say he had concerns about books being removed in some schools that may not be removed elsewhere across the state.
“I do believe that there are going to be books removed that are going to put our students in a negative position when they go to take standardized tests,” Timoney said. “But the assurance that I’m going to make to this body and to everybody listening is that I will be monitoring this … and make sure that content and topics are what our kids need to be seeing, and I’ll go ahead and say it: that child pornography is removed from our schools.”
Minority Floor Leader Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, warned that SB 5 could lead to other problematic legislation that he worries could lead to censorship of other topics in school.
“This is not going to be the first bill, I guarantee,” Graham said. “There’s going to be some more legislation coming down the pipe, and I’m prepared to fight.”
After the House adjourned, Calloway told reporters that he was “extremely disappointed” his amendments failed but that he would plan to reintroduce some of the ideas in the amendments as bills in the next legislative session. Calloway received a round of applause from Republicans when he explained his eventual vote for SB 5.
“There’s people that didn’t co-sponsor but they wanted this meaningful piece of legislation, and they understand it puts them in a very hard spot. But that was my point,” Calloway said. “My point was that it’s here. So somewhere between this building and that other chamber over there, there are people that are controlling the gate that evidently disagree with us going this far.”