News Articles

Council vote in Wichita Falls gives parental input into children’s books

WICHITA FALLS, Texas (BP)–Wichita Falls City Council voted 4-3 Feb. 16 to give citizens — particularly parents — input into where objectionable children’s books are displayed in the Texas city’s public library.
What started as an issue involving children’s books in the library set off a nine-month chain reaction of controversy pitting conservative Christians and pro-family groups on one side against homosexual activists, liberal organizations and advocates of unrestricted freedom of speech on the other, while also sparking debate on separation of church and state — all giving the case a national spotlight and leaving the city council caught in the middle.
Under the plan approved by the city council, library cardholders have the right to gather signatures and challenge children’s books they don’t want children to see. Petitions with at least 300 signatures will require that a book be transferred to an adult section of the library, unless overruled by the council on appeal.
Even before the meeting, the council had received a petition with more than 2,000 signatures of citizens expressing concern over sexual material which might be accessed by children at the library.
The battle began when two books promoting the homosexual lifestyle — purchased with taxpayer dollars — were placed in the children’s section of the library. That location gave children — age 12 and under — unfettered access to the books. When concerned parents were unable to convince the librarian or the library’s advisory board to move the books, they took their case to the city council, which oversees the library’s operations.
National organizations supporting both sides poured resources into the fray, providing free legal advice and issuing press releases. The case also has pricked the already sensitive theological and political nerve endings to moderate and conservative Southern Baptists in Wichita Falls and throughout Texas.
“I think this is a great victory,” said Robert Jeffress, pastor of the 8,400-member First Baptist Church of Wichita Falls. It was Jeffress’ church which led the effort that culminated with the city council’s vote. More than 30 churches had joined First Baptist Church in its efforts.
“I am so grateful the majority of city council members refused to be intimidated by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Americans United for Separation of Church and State and People for the American Way; and instead chose to be responsive to the majority of citizens in Wichita Falls. I think that today’s victory should be an encouragement to Christians in every community, that they can make a difference,” Jeffress told Baptist Press after the vote.
It was two members of Jeffress’ church who first discovered about a year ago the two homosexual-themed books in the children’s section of the library. They brought the two children’s books — “Daddy’s Roommate” and “Heather Has Two Mommies” — to Jeffress who refused to return them to the library, though he did pay the city for them. “Daddy’s Roommate,” written from a little boy’s perspective, carries a drawing of two men in bed with the caption, “Daddy and his roommate sleep together.” Another drawing shows two men embracing, with a caption, “Being gay is just one more kind of love.”
Both books became the subject of a fiery sermon by Jeffress on June 28 in which he encouraged members of his congregation to engage the city council over the homosexual books. And, addressing the Christian’s duty in general to vote for those in public office who uphold godly standards, he said Christians should “vote out the infidels who would deny God and his Word.” When the Wichita Falls newspaper reported what Jeffress said from the pulpit, it immediately drew fire from liberal and homosexual rights organizations from across the country.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State targeted Jeffress and his congregation for criticism, contending it had “crossed the forbidden line.” Americans United threatened to report the church to the Internal Revenue Service, contending it could lose its tax-exempt status if it persisted. A Washington, D.C.,-based homosexual organization referred to Wichita Falls-area Christians who opposed the books as “irrational” and likened another local pastor’s scriptural view of homosexuality to the treatment Jews received from Nazis during World War II. The Wichita Falls newspaper weighed in, calling for city authorities to take legal action against Jeffress for maintaining possession of the two library books.
The ACLU North Texas Region and the politically liberal People for the American Way both implied that lawsuits could be in the offing against the city because of the city council’s action.
“It is our fervent hope that Wichita Falls city council members will avoid the costly and divisive litigation that will almost certainly result if this policy is adopted,” PFAW legal director Elliot Mineberg said Feb. 15.
When asked just prior to the city council vote if she could cite a court ruling that would suggest that council’s action would be illegal, Diana Philip, director of the North Texas region of the ACLU, said she could not, prompting a chorus of laughter throughout the council chamber.
“This is not about censorship, this is about homophobia,” Philip told the council. “I would really hope Wichita Falls would be more tolerant.”
But those supporting the city council’s vote said the change in policy would help parents do their job in a morally troubled world.
“I realize this issue is not about homosexuality or about these two books,” Wichitan Mike Blaylock told the Wichita Falls Times Record News. “What we are asking for in support of this resolution is the freedom to choose to not have materials forced on our children.”
Critics of the council’s vote said it would put misplaced responsibility on the library administrator, staff and advisory board.
“A librarian’s job is to help library patrons, not to decide what patrons read or to substitute their judgment for that of parents,” said PFAW President Carole Shields. “It’s up to parents to decide what their children can read, not strangers or government employees.”
Wichita Falls library administrator Linda Hughes came under fire after she said the two books were chosen from the American Library Association’s best book list. The ALA has established a Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Task Force — initially named the Task Force for Gay Liberation — which has an Internet site that features several best book lists. Some include books about the homosexual lifestyle. One such book, “The Sacred Heart,” is suggested for readers in grades eight through 12 and is summarized by the ALA this way: “Gay and lesbian and bisexual teens speak out in a heartfelt, compassionate collection of essays, with superb portrait photos that personalize the stories.”
The liberal groups also charged that the council’s action would hide children’s books, creating a “chilling effect” that would discourage children from reading them solely because of their content. Philip said the council’s action could trigger legal warfare on constitutional grounds.
But Byron Henry, a Fort Worth attorney with the Plano, Texas,-based Liberty Legal Institute, said his organization would provide free and unlimited legal service to the city should it become the target of a lawsuit over the council’s action.
“There is not censorship in this case; that word should not be used at all,” Henry said. “This is simply moving books from one part of the library to another.”
The Rutherford Institute, based in Charlottesville, Va., offered the church free legal defense should Americans United and the IRS challenge its tax-exempt status. The American Family Association, the Family Research Council, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and the American Center for Law & Justice have all voiced support of — or supplied aid to — Jeffress and First Baptist.
The book battle in Wichita Falls also underscored the division between moderate/liberal and conservative Southern Baptists in Texas. The Baptist General Convention of Texas’ Christian Life Commission and the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, both of which receive funds from First Baptist Church of Wichita Falls through the BGCT Cooperative Program, remained relatively silent on the books. The state CLC finally broke its silence several months into the controversy with a minimal statement after Texas pastors were informed of its inaction. About the only other support First Baptist received from the BGCT came in the form of an editorial by the Baptist Standard state newspaper, which subsequently printed a guest-column rebuttal from Lynn.
A spokeswoman for the BJC declined comment on the city council vote when contacted by Baptist Press Feb. 17.
Jim Richards, executive director of the new Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, said, “We are in full sympathy with [Jeffress’] attempt to move his community toward a higher and more ethical standard. It is a sad day when we celebrate the moving of objectionable literature from one section of the public library to another. However, we praise God for little victories as well as for the big victories. Our prayers go to Dr. Jeffress and all those who are supporting a biblical standard for their community.”
At the height of the homosexual book controversy, it was learned in Wichita Falls that James Dunn, longtime executive director of the BJC, and Phil Strickland, director of the BGCT’s Christian Life Commission, both serve on the governing boards of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Strickland is also BJC member. Another recent BJC member was Shields, who is the daughter of former Baptist Sunday School Board President Grady Cothen, a prominent moderate and one of the most vocal critics of current SBC leadership.
The BJC has become so controversial among Southern Baptists that only four state conventions — Texas, North Carolina, Virginia (BGAV) and West Virginia — continue to provide it with funds, according to the BJC’s Internet site. The BGCT, which contributes about $63,000 annually to the BJCPA, recently lauded Dunn for his years of service with the 1998 Distinguished Service Award.
“I think the silence from both organizations [the BJC and the state CLC] has been deafening,” Jeffress said Feb. 17. “There is no doubt that Americans United and other groups have been trying to silence the prophetic witness of our church through intimidation. While we don’t need the support of the BJC or the state Christian Life Commission to do what we are doing, I think their support would encourage other churches to exercise their First Amendment rights and speak out on moral issues.”
Added Jeffress, “Our theme verse throughout this ordeal has been Daniel 11:32, ‘The people who know their god, shall stand firm and take action.'”

    About the Author

  • Don Hinkle