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Council overturns ban as protestors erupt

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Cumberland City Council has overturned its decision to ban books depicting same-sex parenting from its libraries following a 12-2 vote following angry protests and a marathon debate on 15 May. 

In chaotic scenes outside the council chambers in Merrylands, close to 300 LGBT rights protestors clashed with protestors from Catholic, Orthodox, Maronite, Protestant and Muslim faiths and other local residents.  

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Opposing protestors were locked in a heated war of words as police and riot squad split the crowds on either side of the council chamber driveway. 

Those in favour of the ban screamed chants including “leave our kids alone” and “p** off back to Newtown” while LGBT supporters chanted “we’re here, we’re queer.” 

As the shouting continued, Islamic religious leaders emerged from the chambers together in a display of solidarity with representatives of the Australasian-Middle East Christian Apostolic Churches (AMEC), including Monsignor Marcelino Youssef, Vicar-General of the Maronite Eparchy of Australia, New Zealand and Oceania, and Bishop Anba Daniel, Coptic Orthodox Bishop for Sydney and its Affiliated Regions. 

Together they stood between the two groups, before returning inside for the meeting, where proceedings began nearly 30 minutes late. 

The event comes after Cumberland councillor Steve Christou successfully moved a motion at the beginning of May banning a book titled Same-Sex Parents from local libraries after complaints from residents at finding it in the children’s section.  

Cumberland council book ban - The Catholic weekly
Image: Alphonsus Fok

“It’s my responsibility, and any elected individual’s, to advocate for the views of their community,” Christou told The Catholic Weekly ahead of the council meeting. 

“This is not an attack on same-sex parents or gay people. I represent an alternative view [of the community] … who don’t want two-year-olds exposed to this. It’s not just [about] religion.” 

During the fiery four-hour long debate, after 17 registered speakers took to the stand—the majority slamming Christou for his original motion—Mayor Lisa Lake then denied the councillor a chance to move a motion that would allow the religious leaders present to speak, angering some in the gallery.  

Several members of the public gallery were ejected throughout the night for interrupting speakers as the debate intensified, while councillors Christou, Kun Huang and Ola Hamed revealed throughout the course of the night that they had received death threats over the issue. 

One speaker, Caroline Staples, was heavily criticised as she called the original decision a “destruction and censoring of libraries” and “a weapon of war,” before calling for “elementary kindness.” 

Christou argued against Staples’ petition to overturn the ban which had garnered 42,000 signatures, questioning how many of the signatures were obtained from locals and claimed it was “less than 1.02 per cent.” 

Councillors agreed to extend the meeting past its scheduled end time as debate continued around Christou’s proposed amendment to reinstate the book to libraries in the adult non-fiction section only. 

Labor Councillor Sabrin Farooqui was vehemently against the proposal.  

“I want my children to read it,” she told the chamber. 

Cumberland council book ban - The Catholic weekly
Image: Alphonsus Fok

“As a follower of Islam, I can say that no one is stopping me from following my religion in Australia,” she said. 

“Similarly, I can’t enforce my belief on someone else. Australia is a secular country.” 

After other similar amendments failed to pass vote, councillors returned to Councillor Huang’s motion to reinstate the book to shelves in the junior non-fiction section, which won an overwhelmingly majority. 

The divisive meeting is not the first time this year Cumberland council has drawn media attention over its libraries after it banned “Drag Queen Story Time” reading to children in its facilities when local community members and residents of faith rallied together in late February. 

Emileo Chlela, a protestor at that earlier council meeting, told The Catholic Weekly he returned to be “a voice for the voiceless, our kids.” 

“They are not at the age of reason to be able to make such monumental decisions in life, which is why God has given their parents the instruction to teach them faithfully,” he said. 

Some screaming protestors in the LGBT group claimed we were judging their queer kids, but how can those young children know what they are at such a young age?  

“This is a spiritual battle. There are all cultures and faiths here—Polish, Greeks, Aussies, Lebanese, Muslims, Christians, atheists—a lot of people who are separate that have come together over this issue, which is very telling.” 

Great-grandmother Verna Saunders didn’t arrive in time for a seat in the public gallery but decided to remain standing outside all night with her head bowed in prayer. 

“My knees are killing me, my feet are killing me, my back is killing me, but I just feel that this is what I need to do,” she said. 

Cumberland council book ban - The Catholic Weekly
Image: Alphonsus Fok

“Parents must understand how to develop wholesome standards for thinking and living in society. The family unit is the nucleus of any society, and if you destroy the family, you destroy society. 

“If this book is in the library and is about parenting, it should be in the adult section to let the parents pull out. Being in the junior section targets the children unfairly.” 

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