April 25, 2023 – LGBTQIA+ rights are human rights. Information access is also a human right. And yet, both are under attack by religious extremists. Libraries, and the people who work in them, deserve our support more than ever. 

Did you know that there were 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources in 2022? This number nearly doubles the 729 challenges from 2021 and makes it the highest number of attempted book bans that the American Library Association has seen since it started collecting this data 20 years ago. The majority of books were written by or about LGBTQIA+ people and communities of color. That’s why on this Library Workers Day, we are urging you to support library professionals across the country who are defending intellectual freedom and LGBTQIA+ rights.

The American Library Association considers intellectual freedom to be “the essence of equitable library services,” stating that libraries “have a responsibility to defend against challenges that limit a collection’s diversity of content.” Librarians abide by professional standards for not only selecting material that represents diverse views and experiences, but also follow guidelines for removing material. Calls to ban books, especially LGBTQIA+ books, largely do not adhere to professional ethics and standards. Rather, they are rooted in religion. 

In Idaho, conservative Christians called to preemptively ban 400 books from their local library — meaning that the books are not in the collection, but the group wants to ensure that they never will be. Disregarding professional collection development standards, the group called on the library to evaluate books “under God’s standards and not of the world’s standards.” This is a secular issue, since public libraries and public school libraries are supported by tax dollars and therefore should adhere to a separation of state and church.  And yet, religious extremists are flouting the First Amendment.

Sometimes the attacks are coming from the governing boards themselves. For example, in Pennsylvania a school district has aligned itself with Independence Law Firm, a Christian law firm connected to the anti-LGBTQ Christian nationalist group, the Family Research Council. In working with the law outfit, which Southern Poverty Law Center considers to be an extremist hate group, the school board would ban Pride flags, force students to disregard a student’s correct gender pronouns, and punish staff from speaking out against these anti-LGBTQIA+ directives. It would also impose its own religiously rooted rules on what is deemed “inappropriate” or “sexualized.” 

This is not an anomaly. The Family Leader, which describes itself as “a consistent, courage voice in the churches, in the legislature, in the media, in the courtroom, in the public square … standing for God’s truth” has funded local community groups, such as Iowans for Freedoms, that seek to remove LGBTQIA+ books, resources and inclusive policies.

This push to censor LGBTQIA+ books isn’t limited to the local level, either. In state legislatures across the country there has been a significant rise in library censorship bills. In one particularly extreme example, the Indiana General Assembly recently considered SB 12, a bill that would have opened up librarians in K-12 schools to felony charges for exposing minors to “harmful” materials. The bill would require that public schools make a list of all books in the library available to all parents, which in practice would make it easy for parents to look up a list of books from groups like the Family Research Council, and challenge them without their children having even touched them.

The definition of “harmful” is vague, and intentionally so in order to force librarians to err on the side of censorship. Though the bill never actually mentions sexuality or gender identity, it doesn’t take a law degree to figure out that in our current political climate, “harmful” in this context has become a statutory dog whistle for LGBTQIA+ — especially once one looks at who gets to make the final decisions. The challenge process outlined by SB 12 only requires that a librarian be involved at the first step of the process. Even in cases where a book was found to be appropriate by the first two review committees, parents would still have the ability to appeal the decision all the way up to the school board.

Across the country, school boards are full of pastors and other religious individuals who consistently choose to ignore the responsibilities of their elected office in favor of imposing their religious beliefs on the community at large. Law and politics do not exist in a vacuum, and Indiana politicians are certainly aware of the makeup of a typical school board. While SB 12 appears to have died in committee for now, the threat of it still remains, and there is no guarantee that other states will not similarly attempt to criminalize librarians for doing their jobs.

Unfortunately, there is not an end in sight to this type of censorship on all levels. As the so-called “culture war” rages on over the rights of LGBTQIA+ people to exist in public,  upcoming elections are going to be won and lost on platforms of homophobia and transphobia thinly veiled as “protecting children.” Meanwhile, librarians are being placed on the front lines of defending our young people from the coordinated efforts of Christian nationalist groups to eliminate LGBTQIA+ communities completely, and are facing impossible choices. Being convicted under these types of laws can have catastrophic, career-ending, lifelong consequences such as being placed on a sex offender registry and being barred from working with children.

Ignorance is how theocracy thrives, so it is no surprise that Christian nationalist organizations have set their sights on a profession dedicated to making information free and accessible to the masses. Information on gender and sexuality, race and history, and reproductive health care are all frequent targets for censorship in the United States because they present a truth that is diametrically opposed to Christian nationalism and white supremacy. Access to accurate (and, in the case of children, developmentally appropriate) information is a constitutional right and critical to ensuring the longevity of secular democracy. The American Library Association agrees, stating that it encourages “librarians to proactively support the First Amendment rights of all library users, regardless of sex, gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation.” 

Libraries are one of our most valuable resources, and librarians need our support now more than ever. Show up to library and school board and city/county council meetings. Call your elected representatives. Make it clear that if your voice is not heard now, it certainly will be heard in the voting booth. In any crisis, the best time to act is yesterday, but the second best time to act is today.

You can learn more about Library Workers Day and National Library Week here


Kat Grant (they/them) joined the Freedom From Religion Foundation as an Equal Justice Works Fellow (sponsored by the Wm. Collins Kohler Foundation) in September 2022. Their fellowship project focuses on state/church issues that specifically impact the LGBTQ-plus community. Kat first worked for FFRF as an intern while attending law school at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. Originally from southern Indiana, they received their B.A. in political science from Indiana University Bloomington in 2019, and graduated with their Juris Doctor from IU Maurer in May 2022.

Barbara Alvarez (she/her) is a contributing writer for the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Previously, she had held the role as FFRF’s inaugural Anne Nicol Gaylor Reproductive Rights Intern, a program set up to memorialize FFRF’s principal founder, who was an early abortion rights activist and author of the book Abortion is a Blessing. Barbara was a major winner in FFRF’s essay competition for graduate students, writing about the bible’s role in the abortion battle.