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Culture battle still brewing at Coronado library over children's story time and LGBTQ+ content

Coronado officials are working on a response to a demand letter alleging that librarians discriminated against a local mom by denying her the opportunity to host reading events for children based on books with religious and patriotic themes.

The letter, sent by Washington, D.C., lawyer Jeffrey Hall to Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey, also takes issue with LGBTQ+ content in some books. It demands that the library change its policies on the labeling and placement of books that contain images of adult nudity and/or references to sexual acts.

“In the event you fail to take advantage of this opportunity, formal legal action is eminently justified,” Hall wrote in the Dec. 22, 2023, letter to Bailey. "We are confident that a court would readily rule in favor of our clients.”

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Hall represents Coronado parents Rachel Racz and Jessica Tompane. The letter states that the library denied a request from Racz, who is married to a Navy SEAL, to host a story time on the origins of Christmas from a Christian viewpoint on grounds that it would violate the separation of church and state.

Hall and Racz did not respond to requests for comment from KPBS.

Meanwhile, Tompane is among a group of residents who in June objected to certain LGBTQ+ content at the library to commemorate Pride month. Coronado city officials declined to comment. But they state on the city website that they are in the process of responding to Hall’s letter and working with the women to “explore the nature of their complaint.”

Carl Luna, president of Friends of the Coronado Public Library, said the claims were baseless and needlessly put librarians in the crossfire of the culture wars.

“You don't get to walk into any public library and say: `I'm going to take that chair and do a program and call it a library program,’” Luna said. “If you're going to do a story time at this library and any other library, it has to be run by the library. They're liable for content. They have to go through the books.”

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The Coronado Library is seen in this image taken Jan. 19, 2024. Coronado, Calif.
Mike Damron
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KPBS
The Coronado Library is seen in this image taken Jan. 19, 2024. Coronado, Calif.

Luna said volunteers also had to undergo background checks and be trained and certified. He said he was particularly offended by the implication from Racz’s supporters that the library is somehow anti-military because it refused her request to do story time around patriotic themes.

“We have story times, which bring in our military families,” Luna said. “We have military exhibits at the library. There's a veterans and military active-duty personnel resource center with staff dedicated to helping them with anything they need as they transition to life in Coronado and dealing with military programs. There's a huge military collection here.”

Threats to librarians

The dispute took a dark turn in December, when Fox News aired a segment that depicted the library as anti-Christmas and anti-patriotic. After that segment and coverage by Newsweek, library staff members were inundated with hostile messages.

Some of the posts were especially threatening. One said: “Will the staff please pour gasoline on their bodies and torch themselves.”

The messages prompted Mayor Bailey to state at a City Council meeting last month that “there is no place for threats of violence, directly or indirectly, in civil discourse. And the city will and is taking all measures to ensure the safety of our employees.”

The city put up cameras outside the library in January.

Luna said the threats spread fear and caused morale to plummet among library workers.

“When you are saying things like that to another person, it doesn't matter whatever righteousness you may think is on your side, you are deliberately trying to create terror in somebody else,” Luna said. “You want to have a conversation, have one. Don't be doing this.”

Tompane, who is married to a former Navy SEAL, said she and Racz had also received their share of vitriol.

Coronado parent Jessica Tompane holds up books containing illustrations she finds objectionable.
Amita Sharma
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KPBS
Coronado parent Jessica Tompane holds up books containing illustrations she finds objectionable.

“We're being called bigots, people of hate, KKK Karens, Nazis,” Tompane said. “You name it, we've been called it.”

Tompane objects to certain pictures in books, such as “The Rainbow Parade,” read during toddler story time at the library last June.

“The premise of the book is uplifting,” she said. “The story itself is OK. The illustrations are what are really called into question.” One illustration shows the back of a nude man. Another smaller one shows a male couple in what looks like BDSM gear. Tompane said she was not advocating for censorship or book bans, just common sense.

She wants books such as "The Rainbow Parade" to be moved out of the reach of young kids and any books in the children’s section containing nudity or sexualized material be clearly labeled.

“We have ratings for music, so why are books any different?” Tompane asked.

'Slippery slope'

Migell Acosta, director of the San Diego County Library, said the key for libraries in these instances was assessing how many parents in the community feel differently than those voicing their complaints.

“The slippery slope is you haven’t heard from everybody in the community about their wishes,” Acosta said.

He added that the county has its own panel of professionals who read disputed books. Librarians consider the reviews of the experts, along with surveys of how many people have checked out the book, before making decisions on where and how they should be displayed.

Acosta believes that most libraries are adept at vetting content.

“We’ve been doing this for a long time, because books have been challenged since the beginning of libraries,” he said.

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