MONTGOMERY — On Wednesday, Republican lawmakers moved one step closer to fulfilling a pledge made by State House Majority Leader Scott Stadthagen (R-Hartselle) in 2023.

The House State Government Committee advanced a bill on Wednesday that primarily addresses the statewide controversy surrounding sexually explicit or obscene children's books in Alabama libraries.

However, it would also add a definition to the state's "sexual conduct" provision, seemingly targeted at public drag shows.  

"Any sexual or gender-oriented material that knowingly exposes minors to persons who are dressed in sexually revealing, exaggerated, or provocative clothing or costumes, or are stripping, or engaged in lewd or lascivious dancing, presentations, or activities in K-12 public schools, public libraries, and other public places where minors are expected and are known to be present without parental consent," a late addition to the bill read. 

It also answers a call from lawmakers and political leaders for oversight and restrictions on inappropriate books in libraries targeting minors.

Under current law, "It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly distribute, possess with intent to distribute, or offer or agree to distribute any obscene material or any device designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs for anything of pecuniary (monetary) value. Material not otherwise obscene may be obscene under this section if the distribution of the material, the offer to do so, or the possession with the intent to do so is a commercial exploitation of erotica solely for the sake of prurient appeal."

The obscenity laws do not apply to public libraries, public school libraries, college libraries, university libraries or their employees. House Bill 385 (HB385) by State Rep. Arnold Mooney (R-Indian Hills) would provide that criminal obscenity laws do not apply to college or university libraries or their employees or agents but do apply to public libraries and public school libraries.  

See: WATCH: 'Family friendly' Birmingham drag show includes children collecting tips for performers

See also: Auburn' Pride on the Plains' hosts' family fun night' drag show for 'all ages' to kick off annual 'Pridefest'

The legislation has 30 co-sponsors, including Stadthagen and House Speaker Nathanial Ledbetter (R-Rainsville).

The House State Governmental Committee held a public hearing on Wednesday, where supporters and opposition to the legislation could voice their opinion.

Mooney presented the bill before the committee.

"I think that it's important to look at what this bill does not do," Mooney said. "This bill does not affect the rights of any adult to engage in sexual or gender-related speech or activities in any place where minors are not present and which would otherwise be defined as obscenity. Adult men and women are free to dress as they choose and act as they choose so long as it's not in a place where minors are expected or known to be present, without parental consent."

When Mooney described what the bill does, he named several provisions not included in the bill's text. He later clarified that he accidentally referenced provisions from another library-related bill expected to be filed soon.

Representatives from Eagle Forum of Alabama, the Southeast Law Institute, the Alabama Citizens Action Program (ALCAP), and the Alabama Policy Institute attended the meeting to support the legislation.

Alabama Library Association President Matthew Layne was first of five to the podium to speak against the bill.

Matthew Layne Alabama News
Alabama Library Association President Matthew Layne speaks in opposition to HB385. Photo: Craig Monger.

"Librarians are our mothers, fathers, grandparents, sisters, brothers, and neighbors, and you want to compare them to pornographers and jail them for having books on the shelf that challenge someone's overly tender sensibilities?" Layne said.

The bill states that violations would be considered a "public nuisance" which requires a civil action. The attorney general, district attorney, or, when authorized by the local governing body, the attorney for the county or municipality may file an action in the circuit courts of this state to abate, enjoin, and prevent the public nuisance.

Jessica Hayes, a 15-year librarian, took the podium to bash how "quickly and secretively" the bill was filed and brought to the committee. She also claimed to represent library workers in the state who she believes have faced harassment since the book debate began.

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Librarian Jessica Hayes opposes HB385. Photo: Craig Monger.

"These constituents have spent the last year being called pedophile, groomer, Marxist, indoctrinator by both private citizens, empowered groups and powerful political leaders, some of whom are in this room," Hayes said.

"I read the bill. The way it's written, if it goes forward, libraries will not be able to carry any books on puberty, sex education, including abstinence-only education, and classics like 'The Bluest Eye' or 'Lady Chatterley's Lover,' and depending on who interprets it, the sacred text of the Bible."  

Mooney responded, "I do want to point out that the bill only prohibits materials and activities that violate the Supreme Court's standard of 'harmful to minors.' It has nothing to do with good, great librarians who have been described here today who do really good things and fantastic things for children and their families."

After other questions from the committee, Stadthagen gave a fiery retort to some of the speakers, saying that as a parent, instances that precipitated the legislation make him and others "extremely upset."

"For the record, if no kids were involved in this situation, we would not be in this situation," Stadthagen said. "If things were not being exposed to kids, we wouldn't be here. If it was adults, this would not be a problem. If it's adults in their home, this would not be a problem. When you bring kids — and yes it is grooming them — when you bring kids and you are pushing something like this that is sexual intent, with a man showing himself as an opposite gender to a child, you are grooming them to be in acceptance of that. It is unacceptable."

Newly elected State Rep. Marilyn Lands (D-Huntsville) inquired about situations described in the bill, saying she was not aware of any such situations where children were exposed to sexual content.

Mooney said he had heard of numerous instances but would need to recall a specific example by referencing several communications with constituents who described relevant instances.

State Rep. Ernie Yarbrough (R-Trinity) chimed in to state that he had also received multiple messages from constituents who claimed their children were exposed to sexually explicit content.

"I think it's appropriate that we protect our children and put this material where it should be, and we should not be exposing our minors to this content," Yarbrough said.

The bill passed the committee with the only "no" votes from the two Democrats present.

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