Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. An extremist pastor walks into a library to destroy public property and when the stunt royally backfires on him, he recruits a member of his congregation to craft an unconstitutional city ordinance that essentially made his church members the morality police and the arbiters of what you and your children can read.
No? Never heard that one before? It happened in Wichita Falls in the late 1990s. The pastor in question is Robert Jeffress, at the time the senior pastor of First Baptist Wichita Falls.
Jeffress has since moved on to bigger things. He’s now at First Baptist Dallas and in the past week has stirred controversy by endorsing Gov. Rick Perry and going on the attack against the Mormon faith of Perry rival Mitt Romney.
Jeffress’ 1998 controversy erupted after he learned that the Wichita Falls Public Library had purchased two copies each of “Heather Has Two Mommies” and “Daddy’s Roommate,” both children’s books about kids with same-sex parents.
According to court records (yes, things predictably got all lawyerly and lawsuity), Jeffress reacted by checking out the books and then refusing to return them. He instead gave the library a $54 check to reimburse the cost of the books, but only on the condition that the books not be replaced.
Court records say — but don’t specify how — Jeffress destroyed the books. We’re thinking burning. Maybe stoning. Dunked in holy water, maybe? Reparative gay book therapy?
Over Jeffress’ protestations, the library administrator did her job and replaced the books.
Jeffress and his supporters then went to the City Council, according to records. There, First Baptist Wichita Falls member and City Councilman Bill Altman authored an ordinance that set up process by which 300 library card holders could sign a petition to have books removed from the children’s section, a move that would be final and could not be appealed. The council approved the ordinance by a 4-3 vote.
That’s when the ACLU got involved, filing a lawsuit that led to a court throwing out the ordinance as unconstitutional. According to the ruling (see “court records” link above):
“Not only does this language allow any special interest group to suppress library materials on the basis of their content, it actually facilitates an infinite number of content- and viewpoint-based speech restrictions.”
The ruling drew the expected “WHY DOES THE ACLU HATE AMERICA?!?!?” screed from Jeffress.
Now for the punchline. As a result of Jeffress’ stunt, even more copies of “Heather Has Two Mommies” and “Daddy’s Roommate” wound up on the shelves of Wichita Falls Public Library. The New York Times reported that when word of the stunt got out, library patrons became interested in borrowing the books, so much so that they had to be placed on a wait list. Under library rules, if more than six people are on the wait list for any particular book, administrators are required to purchase more copies. So not only did administrators replace the four copies Jeffress refused to return, but they also had to purchase more copies. That’s on top of the 15 copies sympathetic individuals donated to the library.
The religious right: always willing to stand up for their rights, and take away yours.