Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, Chief United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas. Photo: SPDuffy527 via Wikimedia Commons

A Houston federal judge has rejected an unusual attempt by a group of religious activists to ban “Drag Queen Storytime” at a public library based on their claim that the event violated the First Amendment by advancing a purported religion: secular humanism.

According to the decision in Christopher v. Lawson, the dispute centers on the events held last year at Houston’s Freed-Montrose Neighborhood Library, which were advertised as appropriate for all ages and including “vibrant Queens who will help instill a sense of love and acceptance in our children while encouraging them to be true to themselves.”

Religious activists demanded that the library terminate Drag Queen Storytime, first by alleging that the event violated community decency standards. The library officials refused, noting that American public libraries have historically been on the front lines of promoting inclusivity and dispelling intolerance.

The activists responded by filing a complaint before Lee Rosenthal, chief judge of the Southern District of Texas, seeking to ban the event based on claims that Drag Queen Storytime advances a religion in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In the complaint, the activists argued that the library is a public place and used government funds to promote an event they allege was nonsecular because the LGBTQ community is associated with a religion—secular humanism.

Specifically, the complaint alleged that the library violated the establishment clause by advancing secular humanism over other religions, including Christianity.

The defendants, including the executive director of the library and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, moved to dismiss the plaintiffs’ complaint for failure to state a claim.

In her decision, Rosenthal concluded that the plaintiffs did not have standing to file the case because they could not prove they had been injured by Drag Queen Storytime.

“The plaintiffs are using this case—and similar cases filed in other jurisdictions—to protest the gay-rights movement and the legal rights federal courts have recognized for members of the LGBTQ community,” Rosenthal wrote. “The plaintiffs also allege that they have been ‘libeled, harassed, targeted, and ostracized online and in person because [they] have spoken out publicly [that] homosexual orthodoxy is a religion.’”

“The plaintiffs lack standing because, as the defendants correctly argue, ‘eliminating [Drag Queen Storytime] will not cure their perceived feelings of persecution,’” Rosenthal wrote.

Rosenthal also concluded that the plaintiffs had failed to state a constitutional claim because “even accepting that secular humanism could be a religion for Establishment Clause purposes, the plaintiffs fail to allege any facts or basis showing that ‘Drag Queen Storytime’ is a religious activity.”

“There is no allegation that a reader discussed secular humanism at the event, or that any story the library selected invoked secular humanism or any religion at all,” Rosenthal wrote, dismissing the plaintiffs’ case with prejudice. “The plaintiffs instead make only conclusory statements associating secular humanism with the event. The statements are not entitled to be taken as true.”

Eric B. Dick, a Houston attorney who represents plaintiff Tex Christopher in the case, said the plaintiffs will likely appeal Rosenthal’s decision.

“Judge Rosenthal is an interesting judge and I have nothing but respect for her,” Dick said. “But when you’re a federal judge and you’re there for life you can of do whatever you want to do. I think she wasn’t interested in the case and she chose to find there wasn’t standing.”

Alan Bernstein, director of communications for Turner, declined to comment to the ruling but referred to a statement the mayor issued last year in which he called the lawsuit “frivolous.”

“We acknowledge and celebrate that diversity in all its dimensions,” Turner said in the statement. “As mayor of this city I want us to be diverse and inclusive and I want to live in a city where people can be who they are and we can be tolerant of people ‘s opinions, ideologies, sexual orientation, ethnicities, religion and cultures.”