The defendant, Ashley Morgan, stood in front of Judge Robyn Ripple this past summer, having been given the opportunity to speak in his own defense after being charged with five misdemeanors for rushing past police officers into a room of families with young children during a Drag Queen Story Hour at the Lexington Park Library in Maryland. Looking intense, Morgan started off with a seemingly sincere apology. He had just finished listening to three mothers give tearful accounts of the terror his actions had elicited.
Katelyn Scrittore, a mother of two, described Morgan bursting into the room and yelling. She spoke of her fear that he was going to open fire on the crowd of families gathered there. “I was prepared to shield my children with my own body,” she recounted, wiping tears from her eyes and pausing to regain her composure. Another mother, Jennah Watters, detailed the psychological aftermath of Morgan’s actions, including her child questioning why someone would do that at an event “that we went to for fun and had a lot of fun at.” She now asks herself, “Do I feel safe going to the county fair? What if my kids are wearing a rainbow shirt? Will they be a target?” Danielle Fluker, whose four-year-old son has a sensory processing disorder, testified that when he got in the car he said, “Mama, why was that man trying to hurt us?” She explained that her son is still scared to go to the library even months later.
And then Morgan’s statement took a turn. “Because of my faith, my faith in Christ, I look for opportunities to help people…. if I see a trend that’s harmful to people, to children, I also want to combat that as well.” He continued, “although I didn’t anticipate doing what I did, I did it to help those kids and even everybody in that room. The parents. The drag queens. It was for their sakes. And the community. However, I apologize for scaring those kids. I did not plan on doing that that day.”
Here was a man so gripped by his faith and his righteousness that he was willing to potentially sacrifice his reputation, livelihood, even his very freedom in order to foist his religious beliefs on other parents. And that’s why this issue is so important to me as an atheist activist and as a humanist.
Morgan has a history of anti-LGBTQ bigotry, having sent attacking emails from his Navy email account, harassing a co-worker who dared to complain about it, and handing out prayer tracts at the Pride event on the local Navy base. But he wasn’t the only character in this unfolding drama who would have done far less damage if he’d reacted with the prudence and temperance so many Christians tout in the Bible.
This story began when Southern Maryland Area Secular Humanists (SMASH), and PFLAG Leonardtown decided to hold the Drag Queen Story Hour at the Lexington Park Library as a celebration of Pride month in June. “Drag Queen Story Hour is just what it sounds like: a queen will be reading a fun and inclusive collection of stories to kids,” the announcement promised. “It is a creative and educational way to expose children to diversity and to encourage them to love and accept others, and themselves, as they are.” With that simple statement, the fires of controversy were ignited.
Immediately, the event gained so much interest that an RSVP website was setup to keep the room from going over capacity. The local papers were splashed with articles and letters to the editors voicing both support and opposition to the event. None of this was surprising. In 2016, SMASH hosted a science-based, LGBTQ-inclusive sex-ed class for teens that drew criticism from the same group of religiously motivated protesters and local elected officials.
What was a surprise was that the event caught the attention of “The Activist Mommy,” aka Elizabeth Johnston. She’s a homeschooling mother of ten who writes books about parenting, appears on Fox & Friends and the Christian Broadcasting Network, and who’s garnered some 650K Facebook followers by spreading hate and Christian nationalism. She views abortion, science-based sex-ed, Muslims, LGBTQIA+ folks, conversion therapy bans, and Drag Queen Story Hour as attacks on her religious freedom. “Protect a community of children from exploitation and lifelong confusion,” she urged her followers in reference to the story hour. “It’s wrong for a public library which uses taxpayer funds to host a drag queen event for children where confusing, gender-bending books are read to them!” Despite that fact that the library was not the official sponsor of the event, they fielded hundreds of calls from all over the county.
Meanwhile, SMASH and PFLAG were getting emails from parents eagerly looking forward to the June 23 event. “I wanted to write and thank you for doing things to normalize people. Hopefully, as children are exposed to people different from them this will encourage them to be themselves and /or to become better adults that accept the fact that every[one] is different and that is ok,” wrote one well-wisher. Another wrote, referencing her three-year-old son, “When I told him that men in dresses (as he is a boy who wears dresses) were going to read stories to him, he was SUPER excited. Can’t wait to be a part of it!”
On June 18 Commissioner Todd Morgan of St. Mary’s County, Maryland (no confirmed relation to Ashley Morgan), noted that the target audience of the event was made up of three- to nine-year-olds and that he was concerned. “This to me is a pattern, and it’s a step-by-step pattern that is going after and targeting youth,” he said. “Stop targeting the kids for sexuality. Period. Leave the kids be kids.” The commissioner’s statements contradict the Anti-Hate Resolution he signed seven months prior, which claims that “St. Mary’s County continues to work to ensure our services and programs are accessible and open to all individuals, groups and organizations and to build on the atmosphere of trust among county officials and employees and the community that makes St. Mary’s a thriving, welcoming community.”
Another commissioner, Eric Colvin, shared his colleague’s concern: “To my Christian brothers and sisters out there, I would urge you to remember the command that Jesus gave us, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to show the kind of love to the people who may be a little different from you.” While his message could be construed as being nice, it certainly didn’t make nonbelievers, non-Christians, or LGBTQ folks feel welcome in the community.
Despite pressure to cancel the Drag Queen Story Hour, it took place as scheduled, with about thirty-five children and fifty adult parents and volunteers in attendance. The area was heavily policed by local law enforcement, as Commissioner Morgan had indicated it would be. Outside, yellow caution tape lined the two sides of the sidewalk leading to the building. On one side protesters gathered for a prayer vigil, holding up signs with religious and anti-LGBTQ messages. On the other side were supporters of the event, playing music, dancing, and holding up their own signs in support of the separation of religion and government and the LGBTQ community. Things were proceeding peacefully until Ashley Morgan ran past organizers and two police officers and burst into the room, yelling, “Don’t believe the lies!” Causing terror, toppling chairs, and very nearly knocking over children in his path, Morgan was chased by officers who detained him against the back wall. He continued to shout as they led him out the back fire door, causing further disruption as the alarm sounded.
Folks moved quickly to refocus the kids’ attention to the front of the room. Once everyone was settled back into place, the program pressed on. Two performers read books to the kids, including Free to Be Incredible Me, donated by local author Joelle-Elizabeth Retener, who was in attendance along with her family. The readings were followed by a crown-making craft, a face-painting station, and lots of glamour shots at the photo booth. Some teens and adults stayed after for a makeup tutorial. A fun time was had by all after the initial disruption.
At the next open forum of the St. Mary’s Board of County Commissioners, speakers opposed to the Drag Queen Story Hour spread their religiously motivated message of hate and intolerance, including calling SMASH a “radical atheist group.” I also spoke and made it clear that I felt the commissioners were endorsing one religion over another, which had the effect of chilling the free speech of our group and our members.
At the board’s next business meeting, commissioners voted to transfer $2,439.48 from the library to the Sheriff’s Department. This prompted the American Atheists Legal Center to send an advisory letter on behalf of SMASH, PFLAG Leonardtown, and PFLAG National outlining the potential First Amendment violations and suggesting that the money be returned.
PFLAG Leonardtown President Louise Ball noted that the apparent attempt to defund the library “provides the appearance that LGBTQIA+ expressive voices are attempting to be silenced.”
Judge Ripple at least understood the importance of condemning hate in our county and sentenced Ashley Morgan to 180 days in jail with all but ten days suspended, followed by three years of probation.
The last page of Retener’s Free to Be Incredible Me reads, “Manny realized that people would talk and judge, no matter what you do. So in the end, the most important thing is to just be YOU!” Being oneself, so long as it doesn’t mean mistreating other people because of how they look, dress, or identify is a message all humanists can get behind.