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OPINION: Morality police won this round

by JIM JONES/Guest Opinion
| April 17, 2024 1:00 AM

Idaho has an interesting history of occasionally using the power of government for or against religion. Fortunately, when all is said and done, we usually come back to the concept that the power of government should not be used to advance or target particular religions or religious dogma. 

And so it will eventually be with legislation like House Bill 710, which seeks to use religious beliefs to purge certain books from the shelves of Idaho’s school and other public libraries.

The Constitution that Idahoans adopted upon statehood in 1890 was replete with shameful discriminatory provisions targeted at the Mormon Church. Under Article VI, section 3, its members could not “vote, serve as a juror, or hold any civil office.” 

Over time, Idahoans came to their senses and removed these ugly constitutional provisions. We returned to the concept that the government should stay neutral in the religious realm — allowing religious freedom but not forcing religious beliefs upon the population. 

The great majority of Idahoans trust Gem State librarians with book selection. Despite any evidence that they have violated that trust, religious zealots in the Legislature were finally successful this year in getting legislation passed to second-guess them. So much for keeping government decision-making closest to the people. 

Why trust locally-elected school and library boards to reflect community values when we can turn to the morality champions, Representatives Mike Moyle and Jaron Crane, to make those decisions?

Those exalted legislators had the guiding hand of Christian nationalist Blaine Conzatti and his morality police at the Idaho Family Policy Center to lay the groundwork. Based on his mistaken belief that public libraries were dishing out smut to kids, Conzatti launched his crusade against books with any sexual content that ran afoul of his religious views. 

He as much as admitted that HB 710 was primarily intended to intimidate librarians into self-censoring books that he deemed impure. He crowed that the $250 bounty, plus attorney fees and costs, for refusing to move targeted books would drive up liability insurance costs for libraries. Librarians have been fretting over the cost of trying to fend off the frivolous purge demands that we all know are coming.

There is one important lesson I’ve learned from over five decades of legal and political experience — there is usually a way to overcome adversity. There is a path to righting the damage that will result from HB 710. We just need to buckle down and make it happen.

Everyone who can should vote for reasonable, civil and pragmatic Republicans in the GOP primary election on May 21 and replace the culture warriors who have made our libraries dangerous conflict zones. Unaffiliated voters may register to vote in the Republican primary on election day. Additional culture war extremists can be voted out in the November general election. 

The Open Primaries Initiative will be on the November ballot and it is essential that it be approved in order to break the stranglehold that extremists currently have over the electoral process in Idaho. That will eliminate a number of the book-banning, gay-bashing culture warriors from public office for the long term, while facilitating eventual repeal of the book removal law.

In the meantime, librarians must be on the lookout for a good test case to bring before the courts to test the application of HB 710. I’m confident that pro bono attorneys and expert witnesses will be found to defend a library’s refusal to take a worthy book off of the shelves. 

The party demanding the removal of the book will have the burden of proving the book is harmful to minors, whatever that means. Expert witness testimony will be important and costly for both sides. 

If the complaining party fails to prove the case for removal, it could face having to pay the library's costs and fees, in addition to its own. A hefty cost and fee award for a frivolous case could eliminate a vast number of the removal demands that HB 710 can be expected to produce.

So, despite the fact that Mr. Conzatti’s forces have won this chapter of the battle, the final chapter can have a happy ending where Idaho returns to the traditional concept that our government must remain neutral in the religious realm.

• • •

Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served eight years as Idaho Attorney General (1983-1991) and 12 years as a Justice on the Idaho Supreme Court (2005-2017). His columns are collected at JJCommonTater.com.


LINKS:

House Bill 710:

https://legislature.idaho.gov/sessioninfo/2024/legislation/H0710/


Great majority of Idahoans trust Gem State librarians:

https://www.boisestate.edu/sps/2024-idaho-public-policy-survey/


Idaho Family Policy Center:

https://idahocapitalsun.com/2022/04/26/its-christ-or-chaos-idahos-newest-family-policy-center-and-its-biblical-beliefs/


Drive up liability insurance costs:

https://www.idahopress.com/news/local/little-signs-harmful-materials-library-bill-into-law-on-day-legislature-adjourns/article_68cd64f6-f75e-11ee-8ad6-8f4c12b3f373.html


Librarians have been fretting:

https://idahocapitalsun.com/2024/01/24/idaho-librarians-contemplate-leaving-work-and-the-state-as-a-result-of-proposed-legislation/