Books sit on shelves in an elementary school library in suburban Atlanta, Aug. 18, 2023 Source: AP Photo/Hakim Wright Sr., File

Georgia GOP Senators Seek to Purge School Libraries, Limit Sex Education

Jeff Amy READ TIME: 4 MIN.

Republican senators in Georgia want to cull sexually explicit books from schools, ban sex education for younger students, display the Ten Commandments in classrooms and allow religious chaplains to counsel teachers and students.

The measures, which passed Senate committees Wednesday, could spark contentious debate ahead of a key legislative deadline next week. Many of them mimic measures passed in other states, part of a broad GOP effort to reshape education.

It's not clear if the bills would be favorably received in Georgia's traditionally more moderate House. But even if they don't pass, they will give Republican senators a chance to display their conservative stripes in an election year where some could face primary challenges.

Here's a look at the measures, each of which will go to the full Senate for consideration:

Sexually Explicit Materials

Public schools would be banned from acquiring any materials that depict sex acts after Dec. 1 under Senate Bill 394, dubbed the "Clean Libraries Act" by its sponsor, Senate Education Committee Chairman Clint Dixon.

"It has to do with sexual content in books," said Dixon, a Buford Republican. "Heterosexual, homosexual, any of that, we don't want to expose our kids to any of that when they're minors."

The measure passed by the Education Committee would ban distribution of any sexual materials to students in sixth grade and below and restrict them for seventh grade and above. At least some materials deemed necessary for teaching could be accessed by older students with written parental permission.

The rules would apply to books, videos, sound recordings, websites or other electronic material. "Materials of great religious or historical significance" may be exempt if they don't "portray sexually explicit material in a patently offensive way."

The measure would create a council to set standards and restrict materials.

Criminal Penalties for Librarians

Senate Bill 154, also passed by the Education Committee, would subject K-12 librarians to criminal penalties if they violate state obscenity laws. Current law exempts public librarians, as well as those who work for public schools, colleges and universities, from penalties for distributing material that meets Georgia's legal definition of "harmful to minors."

The bill makes school librarians subject to penalties only if they "knowingly" give out such material. The sponsor, Republican Sen. Greg Dolezal of Cumming, says Georgia shouldn't have a double standard allowing for the prosecution of teachers for obscenity but not librarians down the hall.

The bill was amended to let librarians argue that they should be exempt from prosecution if schools review every item in a library for obscenity. Sen. Ed Setzler, the Acworth Republican who offered the amendment, said the measure "creates an incentive for schools to scrub their libraries."

Sex Education

School districts could drop sex education and students would only be enrolled if parents specifically opt in under Senate Bill 532, which the Education Committee also passed. Dixon's measure would ban all sex education in fifth grade and below. It would keep the requirement for age-appropriate sexual abuse and assault awareness and prevention education.

"This bill protects our kids and keeps our children from premature education on sexual topics for children who are 10 to 11 years old or younger," said Chelsea Thompson, a lawyer for the Christian conservative group Frontline Policy Institute.

Currently state sex education standards call for little explicit discussion of human reproduction below eighth grade, although second graders are supposed to learn the names of all body parts and "appropriate boundaries around physical touch." Fifth graders are supposed to learn about puberty, and most mandated sex education happens in a high school health course.

The bill would require the state Board of Education to set new standards and let any school district refuse to teach sex education. Instead of the current parental opt-out system for sex education, it would be opt-in.

School Chaplains

Public schools would be able to use chaplains under Senate Bill 379, which passed the Government Oversight Committee. Chairman and bill sponsor Marty Harbin, a Tyrone Republican, said chaplains provide an outlet for conversations that students don't feel comfortable having with counselors.

"We need good, sound counsel sometimes, or just a friend to talk to. Isolation is a real problem today," Harbin said.

The bill would leave it to school districts to decide whether to hire chaplains or accept volunteers, and to determine qualifications for chaplains. Democrats expressed concerns about qualifications for chaplains, as well as whether they are appropriate for schools.

"How are we going to verify that these chaplains are prepared for secular spaces?" said Sen. Nabilah Islam Parks, a Democrat from Duluth.

American Library Association

The Government Oversight Committee also advanced a bill that would ban the spending of public money on the American Library Association. Sen. Larry Walker III, a Perry Republican, has said Senate Bill 390 is needed because he believes the association is a "radical, left-leaning organization." The move comes among other attempts nationwide by Republicans to cut ties to it.

Walker amended his original bill to let Valdosta State University continue paying for ALA accreditation for its master's degree in library science after university officials warned that losing accreditation would wreck the program and drive students out of state. Walker had also originally proposed to abolish state certification for librarians, but his amended bill shifts certification to the Georgia Council of Public Libraries.

Ten Commandments

The Government Oversight Committee also advanced a bill that would add the Ten Commandments to the list of historic civic documents schools are encouraged to display, alongside texts like the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address.

"To be ignorant of the Ten Commandments is actually to be uneducated, because they are a foundation of all law," said Harbin, the sponsor of Senate Bill 501.

The measure enshrines the text of the Ten Commandments found in the Protestant King James Version of the Bible. Other Christian and Jewish texts have different versions.

Harbin said displaying the precepts would encourage virtue: "These have been hidden to us, to a great degree, and from our people and from our students."

by Jeff Amy

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