On a muggy Tuesday night, 78 speakers gathered in the Lafayette Consolidated Government building to voice their opinions in relation to the upcoming Drag Queen Story Time hosted by members of Delta Lambda Phi fraternity, scheduled for Oct. 6 at the Lafayette Public Library.
The room was packed beyond capacity, leaving people to wait in the hallways for their chance to take a seat inside. It was abuzz with chattering long before the meeting started.
“I’m here to testify to the council that the library is no place to introduce either sexually-oriented material or politics to three-to-six-year-olds,” said Gene Mills, president of the Louisiana Family Forum.
Mills is one of many that came in opposition of the event.
Mills, and those of similar opinion, says this is a question of legality, not intolerance.
“We filed a federal lawsuit to stop the library from hosting the Drag Queen Story Hour based upon the unconstitutionality of it,” said Rich Penkoski, founder and pastor with Warriors for Christ, a controversial Christian group that began as an online ministry through Facebook. The group, which the Christian Broadcasting Network cites as having more than 225,000 followers, has seen trouble in the past with violating Facebook’s community standards by “promoting hate speech.”
Regardless, Penkoski stands by his claim that Drag Queen Story Time violates religious laws.
“We’re arguing that these types of things fall under religious secular humanism, and the government cannot enjoin itself in that because of that premise,” Penkoski added.
According to Steven Schafersman, a member of the American Humanist Association, secular humanism is “a philosophy, worldview, or life stance based on naturalism — the conviction that the universe or nature is all that exists or is real.”
Penkoski argued the beliefs of secular humanism need restriction from the library if his Christian faith will see restrictions as well.
“We called the library ourselves and I asked if we could hold a meeting … giving the other side of this argument, the biblical view of creation, and the library told me ‘no,’” Penkoski said. “I said, ‘if you’re giving this as a free speech event, then I should be able to come in and give the flip side of this argument.’”
William R. Davie, Ph.D., a professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and co-author to the book “First Amendment Law in Louisiana,” said he believes this is certainly a First Amendment case.
“I think that the library is allowing people of different orientations to present children's stories. No one is compelled to agree with the orientation. No one is compelled to attend,” Davie said.
Davie mentioned the importance of the First Amendment as a shared right on both sides of the issue.
“The ideal of our democracy is to have a limited, robust debate on these issues that are so important to our country’s religious life, and its secular life as well,” Davie said. “I think the First Amendment should protect all sides or viewpoints that are not criminal, and I have no knowledge of any criminal activity that involves dressing as a woman if I’m a man or dressing as a man if I’m a woman.”
In the midst of the conflict, however, opposers doubt this is the case. In fact, many have voiced worry this could be the “start” of something.
“And I can assure you, if the proponents of this drag queen story hour are successful, it doesn’t end there,” Mills said when he spoke at the meeting. “They don’t leave you alone. They move forward by beginning to connect the dots. In moving forward with an agenda that’s more aggressive.”
But members of the fraternity say this is far from the case.
“The event itself was very simple; it’s gotten big because of the reaction,” Jeffrey Sykes, former president of the DLP fraternity, said. “It’s still just volunteering to read to some local children with books that the library has already preapproved for this age group.”
The members of the UL Lafayette’s DLP chapter planned this event as a way to fulfill their standards of philanthropy and community service, according to Brad Parfait, active president of the fraternity. The choice of drag queen story time, he said, was to stick to their fraternity’s demographic, which was founded “by gay men for all men,” according to their website.
The lawsuit being filed by Penkoski’s group follows the failure of a resolution proposed by city-council members William Theriot of District 9 and Jared Bellard of District 5. The resolution, which failed with only three members in support and six abstaining, stated the council did not support the story time because it was inappropriate for the target age group and, “As a result, the Lafayette City-Parish Council hereby declares that it does not support the Lafayette Public Library’s approval of the program titled ‘Drag Queen Story Time’ as a Lafayette Public Library programmed event.”
Throughout the meeting, those in opposition of the event pushed council members to take some action against the library and cancel the event. Members, including District 1’s Kevin Naquin, reminded attending citizens that canceling the event is outside of their power. Although they do appoint the members of the Library board of directors, it is still outside of their power to cancel the event.
“The board has final authority over something like this, and I think that’s where it ends,” Library Director Teresa Elberson said.
Many speakers countered the appointed members could be removed.
“The council does have the power … to remove one or more Library Board of Control members only for neglect of duty, which would equate to what is considered just cause,” explained City-Parish Attorney Paul D. Escott. “And prior to that would require a due process hearing in front of this council … If there are seven members, there would be seven separate hearings, seven separate decisions. The council’s decision would need to be not arbitrary and capricious.”
Any decisions made in these hearings as well as the council’s decision is also subject to appeal.
The meeting, however, concluded without any action, thus giving way to not one, but two lawsuits, which named Library Director Theresa Elberson, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, John Bel Edwards and Attorney General Jeff Landry as responsible.
The lawsuit being filed by Warriors for Christ argues that by allowing DLP to hold this event, the library is endorsing the group’s secular humanism and in fact is “excessively entangling the government with the religion.” Furthermore, the lawsuit states, “By endorsing transgenderism … the city of Lafayette is relegating Christians to second-class citizens.”
The lawsuit continues by establishing that Drag Queen Story Time violates the First
Amendment Establishment Clause in the U.S. Constitution. The Establishment Clause asserts that government cannot make any law “respecting an establishment of religion” or that forces belief in any one religion.
In addition to the Establishment Clause, the group argues the Drag Queen Story Time fails the Lemon Test.
The Lemon Test, originating from the 1970 Lemon v. Kurtzman case, lays out a three-prong test to ascertain if a case goes against the Establishment Clause. The three parts include the following: does it have a secular purpose, does it either advance to inhibit a religion and does it entangle government with religion.
Warriors for Christ and representative Mark Christopher Sevier assert in their lawsuit the event violates two of the three prongs.
“The First Amendment Establishment Clause states those who are named are prohibited from enforcing, endorsing, recognizing, respecting, favoring any form of policy that doesn’t involve one man and one woman,” Sevier said of the lawsuit. “Any kind of transgender bathroom ordinance, any conversion therapy ban, any government paying for sex changes, any change to pronouns, any hosting of drag queen story hours … I mean all of them, down the line, because those policies are nonsecular in nature, nonsecular legal shams.”
Sevier, a law graduate from Vanderbilt University, is not allowed to practice law in Louisiana, according to the Daily Advertiser. Not only is Sevier not listed among certified lawyers in the Louisiana State Bar Association, but in 2011 Sevier’s status was changed to “disability inactive” following the Tennessee Supreme Court’s ruling, according to the Daily Beast. He has also been accused of stalking and has filed unorthodox cases, including a case to marry his own computer and listing himself as a “self-proclaimed objectophile” in the suit filed in September.
In an interview, Sevier claimed he is continuing the work of Martin Luther King Jr., saying, “The plaintiffs in the case are all defending the integrity of the Civil Rights Movement lead by pastor Martin Luther King. We’re kind of restoring the integrity of the 14th Amendment … the Civil Rights fight is based on immutability and genetics and the gay summarized point is not.”
Following the event’s cancellation just a day before its scheduled time, Parfait said his fraternity brothers were “upset but OK.”
“We’ll do what we can for the future, but as far as our feelings, we’re all kind of OK with it,” Parfait said. “Whatever is going to happen is going to happen.”
Parfait added, “We are going to do our best to do what we can with our mission and our beliefs, but if it doesn’t go exactly as planned, we’ll just keep working harder and trying again. We are going to have our event and everything is going to keep going fine. If they want to come and protest, then they also have their right to do that.”