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Arkansas governor appoints two conservatives to state library board amid lawsuit, content debate

The “social section” in Crawford County Library’s Van Buren branch
Arkansas Advocate
Screenshot from court documents
The “social section” in Crawford County Library’s Van Buren branch

Former Arkansas state senator Jason Rapert, a Conway Republican who founded the National Association of Christian Lawmakers, is one of the newest members of the Arkansas State Library Board at a time when children’s access to library materials is a subject of statewide debate.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced a range of appointments to state boards Monday. Rapert replaces Joan O’Neal of Greenbrier, whose term on the library board expired last year. Sanders also appointed Shari Bales of Hot Springs to the board, replacing Donna McDonald of Charleston, whose term expired in October.

Rapert’s term will last until Oct. 18, 2029, and Bales’ term will last until a year later.

Former state Sen. Jason Rapert.
Dwain Hebda
Arkansas Advocate
Former state Sen. Jason Rapert.

The Arkansas State Library is both an information resource center for state government and a support system for local public libraries, according to its website. The state library board oversees the distribution of state and federal funds to public libraries.

Rapert and Bales join the seven-member board while the state is being sued over a law that would alter Arkansas libraries’ processes for reconsidering material and create criminal liability for librarians who distribute content that some consider “obscene” or “harmful to minors.” A federal judge temporarily blocked portions of Act 372 of 2023 in July before it went into effect.

The conservative-led push to keep children from accessing certain books has focused on content pertaining to LGBTQ+ topics, sex education and systemic racism. Opponents of this policy have said the content in question reflects the community as a whole and restricting access to it is censorship.

Rapert served in the state Senate from 2011 to January of this year. He did not run for reelection in 2022 and instead unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor.

In 2019, he founded the National Association of Christian Lawmakers, a group that has been responsible for model legislation introduced in several statehouses nationwide, including bans on abortion and gender-affirming medical care.

Rapert sponsored the 2015 Arkansas law creating a monument to the Ten Commandments on Capitol grounds. A man ran over the monument with his car shortly after it was erected in 2017, and a new monument was erected in 2018 and is still standing.

Several groups quickly filed federal lawsuits for the removal of the monument, citing the First Amendment clause that prohibits the government from favoring an establishment of religion. Those efforts have been combined into one lawsuit, now in its fifth year.

U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker heard arguments on the suit in July and wrote in October that she would consider allowing the Arkansas Supreme Court to rule first on the matter. All the parties to the lawsuit have since agreed to dismiss the lawsuit’s state claim, rendering the issue moot.

Rapert also made national headlines after an atheist group sued him for blocking several people on social media accounts. The suit settled last year, requiring Rapert and the state to pay American Atheists $16,291 in legal fees.

Bales is a real estate agent and musician whose X account (formerly Twitter) hasn’t been updated since 2021. Her Facebook page focuses on her music.

Local impact of library debate

Efforts to make certain books inaccessible to minors have had a range of outcomes throughout Arkansas.

Before Act 372 was introduced in the Legislature, public backlash against LGBTQ+ children’s books led the Crawford County Library System to relocate them to a “social section” only accessible to adults at all five library branches. The county faces two separate lawsuits over the matter, including the one against the state for Act 372.

Bob Ballinger, another former state senator, is one of the attorneys representing Crawford County as of September. Ballinger is also a member of the National Association of Christian Lawmakers, and he lost his Senate seat in the 2022 Republican primary.

In April, the Saline County Quorum Court recommended, in advance of Act 372’s effective date, that the local library preemptively “relocate materials that are not subject-matter or age appropriate for children, due to their sexual content or imagery, to an area that is not accessible to children.”

The library’s then-executive director, Patty Hector, refused to relocate books and defended her decision before the quorum court. The court voted in August to give County Judge Matt Brumley hiring and firing power over library staff. Brumley fired Hector in October, and she has said she plans to respond with legal action. Hector has since filed to run for a position on the quorum court.

Last week, the Pulaski County Special School District cut students’ access to online educational materials through the Central Arkansas Library System, one of the plaintiffs suing Act 372.

CALS’ online student portal does not have “a way to filter search results and access to particular material,” a PCSSD spokeswoman said, so the district will not allow access to it without “more clarity as to what’s acceptable and what’s not.”

Tess Vrbin is a reporter with the nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization Arkansas Advocate. It is part of the States Newsroom which is supported by grants and a coalition of readers and donors.