In a small Virginia town, a small but vocal religious group has made it their mission to take over the local library — and they won’t stop there.
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When you hear about religious zealots trying to impose their worldview on everybody else, you may think of faraway theocracies like Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. But it is also happening in small American towns like Front Royal, VA (population 15,011), just an hour’s drive from Washington, DC.
In this Shenandoah Valley community, Samuels Public Library has a proud history; founded in 1799, it has survived the Civil War and the strife accompanying the end of segregation. Now, however, a small but vocal group made up primarily of traditionalist Catholics — along with a few evangelicals — have made it their mission to close the library for good, or at the very least take over its management for the purpose of censoring content of which they disapprove. And, according to many of the advocates fighting on behalf of the town library, this group will not stop until they take control of the town’s other institutions as well.
Though library supporters say the scheme to take over the library was long in the planning, the librarians themselves only realized that something was going on early in 2023, when they began receiving complaints about some of the books available in their children’s and young adult sections.
Like most libraries, Samuels has procedures in place to process any such concerns raised by patrons. The librarians therefore asked Mark Egger, the 67-year-old piano teacher who made the initial complaints, to file a standard “Request for Reconsideration” form. Egger did so on April 18, in protest of the book I Am Jazz, a picture book by Jazz Jennings and Jessica Herthel based on Jennings’s experiences growing up as a trans person.
“I am researching books that indoctrinate children into the lie of ‘transgenderism,’” Egger wrote. “Imagine a young boy reading this book … then thinking he must be a girl like Jazz. And in the present lunatic culture we live in, he could end up like Jazz, with his mind and body damaged beyond repair. Do you want this on your conscience?”
Samuels Public Library takes Requests for Reconsideration seriously; the process is exhaustive and costs the library about $1,300 in staff and volunteer hours per book. The library began investigating Egger’s complaints about I Am Jazz and two other titles.
Before they could finish their evaluation, however, they received more Request for Reconsideration forms: 590 of them.
It quickly became clear that a group including Egger had embarked on a crusade against the library, and the mass submission of forms was just the first broadside in an ongoing conflict that is exposing deep divisions in the community.
According to some residents, the rift within the town began back in 1979.
‘Christ the King Reigns’
That was the year Thomas McFadden Sr., then-president of Virginia Right to Life, an anti-abortion organization, learned that the newly founded Christendom College was looking for a campus to purchase. He suggested a location in Front Royal.
Christendom is a Catholic college whose unapologetically theocratic goal, as described in its mission statement, is the “Christian renovation of the temporal order.” According to its founder, Warren H. Carroll, the school was established in pursuit of the “Christian social and political ideal: a society, a culture, a government in which Christ the King reigns. … At this moment of history, Christendom can exist only in small and self-contained places.”
McFadden, along with the other fundamentalist Catholics who eventually joined him, hoped to make Front Royal one of those places.
This intent has been clear for some time to resident Kris Nelson, an activist who has lived in Front Royal for over 20 years and is a member of the group trying to save the library. She sees this latest protest against library books as just one more sally in a long cultural war.
“I call them the ‘fascist fraction’ of the Catholic church,” Nelson told WhoWhatWhy. “And they’ve made it their mission since the ’80s to make Front Royal — and these are their words — a ‘Catholic Mecca.’”
McFadden Sr. has remained active and influential within the Front Royal Catholic community, and his son, Tom McFadden Jr., now serves as vice president for admissions at Christendom College. McFadden Jr. is also the secretary of the Warren County Republican Committee, where his mission is to “find conservative candidates to run for political and leadership positions in the area, most especially, the School Board, Town Council, and Board of Supervisors.” McFadden Jr. himself is running for the Shenandoah District School Board seat in November.
Christendom is just one small college, and the McFaddens are just one family. But their coordinated and persistent efforts to exert control in their town are emblematic of a larger threat being carried out in city councils, school boards, and state legislatures across the country.
‘As Cunning as Serpents, as Innocent as Doves’
The attack on Samuels Library may have begun with Egger’s complaint, but extensive interviews and the internal communications of library opponents, obtained by WhoWhatWhy, show that the onslaught of requests was not the work of a few concerned citizens but rather a coordinated attack by organized religious zealots.
On January 30, 2023, McFadden Sr. sent a message to the email listserv he moderates, the “Front Royal Catholics for Civic Engagement Group,” with the subject line “Fwd: pervert books at the library.” A recipient shared this email, along with screenshots of similar messages, with library supporters, who provided them to WhoWhatWhy.
“These books promote sexual fetishes,” McFadden wrote. “If it is contrary to your culture, say so!”
Members of the group, led by Egger, Jane Eliot, and Isaac and Julia Easton, soon established a website under the name “Clean Up Samuels” (CUS). On May 8, list moderators sent another email to the Front Royal Catholics for Civic Engagement Group, inviting its members to an event hosted by the Eastons: They promised to provide copies of the “objectionable” books with explicit passages marked and asked their like-minded friends to fill out forms objecting to as many as possible.
The Eastons called this event, which took place on May 13, “Beer, Babysitting, and Cleaning Up Samuels Library!”
On a website promoting the event, they wrote, “Christ told us to be ‘cunning as serpents, and innocent as doves,’ (Mt. 10:21). Right now, innocence is under attack at our local Samuels Library. … YOU CAN HELP!”
In exchange for community members attending the event and completing forms requesting that individual books be removed from the library collection, they offered prizes to those who filled out the most: a bottle of Cabernet to the first-place winner and gift certificates to a local beer store to the runners-up. They ultimately collected and submitted nearly 600 forms.
In a May email, Isaac Easton thanked the supporters who had attended the event and also explained the next steps in their “cunning” plan: Though almost all of the books they had selected for culling contained LGBTQ themes, Easton directed the recipients to now shift their language away from a focus on those issues per se.
“When making our case to the broader public,” he wrote, “focus exclusively on graphic porn being available to children. It’s our most winnable argument.” He told members of the email list to write letters to the editors of two local news outlets — but only if the authors sent them to Easton to review first.
The members of CUS did not limit their work to merely writing letters in local publications and submitting forms. They had already recruited at least two of the five members of the Warren County Board of Supervisors (WCBS), Vicky Cook and Jay Butler, who attended the Beer and Babysitting event. Butler not only attended but even filled out two forms in his capacity as a representative of the WCBS. Rich Jamieson, who is running unopposed to join the board in November, was also present and participated. Neither Cook nor Butler responded to our request for comment.
With members of the WCBS as their allies, CUS realized they could do more than force the library to remove a few books; they could use this controversy to freeze the library’s county funding and effectively oust its entire management.
“Those in whose discretion the Library’s funding lies are watching,” the moderators of the Civic Engagement email list wrote.
If cutting the library’s funding was not their goal from the beginning — as some library supporters believe it was — it became their explicit goal at this time.
Samuels Public Library
This attack on the library’s funding is possible because of Samuels’s unique relationship with Warren County.
Proud of its more than two-centuries-long history of service to the community, the library has operated since 1978 as a 501c(3) nonprofit with an independent board of trustees. About 80 percent of the library’s budget comes from the county, and 20 percent comes from an endowment and donations.
The library is also staffed in large part by volunteers, who donate in time the equivalent of a quarter of a million dollars each year.
The library’s partnership with the county is governed by a memorandum of agreement (MOA) that was last renewed in 2017 and expired in the fall of 2021. Since the county board of supervisors continued to fund the library through 2021 and 2022, the library’s trustees did not consider renewing the MOA a matter of urgent concern.
It seems, however, to have quickly become a focus for the library’s opponents; according to Nelson, CUS recognized that they could use the renewal of the MOA to force a reevaluation of the entire structure of the library and its relationship with the county.
On May 26, the Civic Engagement group’s moderators sent another email explaining their desire to “[cut] the library’s funding to a point where its management will have to choose between adopting community standards or looking for another job.” CUS was confident they would be able to execute this plan:
“At least 4 of the 5 members of the Board of Supervisors,” they wrote, “are known to be sympathetic to our clean-up campaign.” The email instructed supporters of CUS to attend the board’s meeting on June 6 to “demand reform” and give the board “cover to act boldly.”
An Instant Activist
While the library’s opponents were plotting their offensive, its defenders were unaware that the assault was coming, and, when it did, they were slow to react. Eventually, however, a resistance formed.
Kelsey Lawrence is a mother of four and a patron of the Samuels Public Library. Before this controversy, she took her children to the library’s story time and attended baby yoga with her 18-month-old, but she was not otherwise any more involved than the average library card holder.
When she learned that the library’s collection was under attack and would be on the agenda for the June 6 board of supervisors meeting, however, she decided to create a page on social media to invite other library supporters to the event.
Lawrence did not know that this decision would be the beginning of her involvement as an activist and as the leader of Save Samuels, the community organization that has arisen in opposition to CUS.
“I didn’t even know how to create a Facebook group,” Lawrence told WhoWhatWhy. “I was Googling trying to figure out how to start a grassroots movement. I guess you could say I’m an instant activist.”
She knew that LGBTQ books had been targeted for removal, and she expected that CUS would put on a “performance” at the board of supervisors meeting. Though she wanted to be there to support Samuels and the LGBTQ community, she had no expectation that CUS would be a serious threat to the continued operation of the library.
“I was under the impression that the group that wanted things banned was small,” she said. “I was told it would take a lot of effort and time to do any kind of amending of the yearly budget.”
In hindsight, Lawrence realizes she should have expected a fierce fight.
“There’s a well-oiled machine” she said, describing the Catholic community surrounding Christendom and the McFaddens, “that requires so much less effort and setup for them. They just plug in and go. … The funding is there, the organization is there. They literally just send their people where they need to be.”
On June 6, they sent their people to the Warren County Board of Supervisors meeting.
That night, the boardroom of the Warren County Government Center was filled to overflowing. The tension between the members of CUS and Save Samuels, who were packed shoulder to shoulder in the audience, is palpable in the archived video of the event. After 15 minutes of the kind of business one might expect to find in an administrative meeting for a rural Virginia town — the pledge of allegiance, a motion to rename a highway, and a prayer led by a local pastor in colonial garb — the community comment period began.
Egger was the first to address the board. Speaking rapidly to fit his comments within the three-minute time limit, he promptly set the tone for the evening.
“You’ll be hearing from people tonight who claim we are banning books,” he said. “This is hogwash. … Nobody is banning books, nobody is censoring anything. … The anti-science psychopaths who believe that a boy can become a girl are free to purchase any crappy book they want with their own money.”
Egger went on to attack the “left-wing” American Library Association for their support of “sexual perversion and the anti-science lie of transgenderism,” and the “woke” book-review industry. Just as Egger was reaching the climax of his impassioned description of the perversity of I Am Jazz, his time expired.
“That was three minutes?” Egger asked, clearly perturbed. “That was the fastest three minutes I’ve ever lived,” he said, scowling as he packed up his notes and left the lectern.
What followed were four hours of similarly contentious remarks. Members of CUS stood to read excerpts of the most explicit passages from the young adult novels chosen for culling by Egger, Eliot, and the Eastons.
Ultimately, more than 60 people spoke for three minutes each, and the meeting lasted until past 11 p.m. According to the Royal Examiner, 34 advocated for the removal of the contested books, while 26 requested that the library be fully funded.
The board of supervisors announced their decision on June 14: They voted 4 to 1 to withhold 75 percent of the library’s county funding while the library and board pursued a resolution to the controversy. If they could not come to terms by October 1, the library would have no choice but to close its doors.
An Attempt at Appeasement
By this time, the staff at Samuels Library were working on a compromise they hoped would satisfy CUS and the board of supervisors.
They created a tiered library card system by which parents could choose the kinds of books children would be allowed to check out, and they established a “New Adult” section so that sexually explicit YA content could be placed in the adults’ rather than the children’s section.
These changes were announced at the library board of trustees meeting on July 10 — the same meeting at which the trustees voted on whether or not to remove three books about which Egger had complained. For two, they recommended no changes; they agreed to move This Is Why They Hate Us, by Aaron H. Aceves, to the New Adult section of the library.
According to the Washington Post reporter who covered the event, “Egger was so livid over the final vote that a deputy had to ask him to quiet down. Egger walked out to the lobby, where he said the library’s system for reviewing books was rigged.”
CUS was similarly indignant. In a press release, they wrote that “Samuels ‘Public’ Library responded to the concerns about pornographic and age-inappropriate books by flatly ignoring them. This was evident in the July 10 board of trustees meeting held at the library where a decision was made to keep three of the books in place.”
Amid the controversy, the library’s director, Michelle Ross, resigned on August 4.
The Fronts Harden
CUS leaders were unambiguous about their goals going forward and made it clear they had no desire for compromise; they would not stop until the library’s current management structure was entirely dismantled.
“We demand that Samuels Public Library cease its operations as an unaccountable non-profit organization,” they wrote in a press release on August 8. They advocated for a new and radically different MOA drawn up by the board members whom CUS understood to be “sympathetic” to their campaign.
In the last weeks of August, the county shared a draft of this new MOA with the library.
In the new MOA, the county proposed that the board of supervisors would have the authority to appoint six members to the library’s board of trustees, including its executives. The new agreement also stipulated that only county funds could be used to purchase books and other media; the county would therefore have ultimate oversight and control over all of those purchases.
From the library’s perspective, this would effectively result in a takeover of their entire governing structure and the end of the library as it has existed for decades. According to Nelson and Lawrence, it would also be significantly more expensive, perhaps prohibitively so, for the county — already strapped for funds following a 2019 financial scandal that cost the county $21 million — to operate the library entirely via county funds.
The library therefore rejected this MOA and sent back a new draft of their own; they proposed that the board of supervisors appoint only one seat on the board of trustees.
The county in turn rejected the library’s draft; by the time of the next board of supervisors meeting, the library and county were at an impasse.
‘We’re Operating on Different Rules’
When the members of Save Samuels met on September 4 to discuss their plan for the next board of supervisors meeting, they didn’t realize that their group had been infiltrated by a member of CUS.
Sloane Casey portrayed herself as a library supporter and even asked if she could have a Save Samuels T-shirt. Casey is the mother of a toddler, an unassuming and kind-looking woman with short blonde hair. Members of Save Samuels readily believed her to be an ally — only to find out later that she was a spy.
“She sat at our table and talked to our children and ate our pizza,” Nelson explained, “and then she helped sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to one of our friends, the mother of one of our transgender kids, and she said she was a supporter.”
“It felt violating,” Lawrence told WhoWhatWhy. “It felt like [our meeting] was a safe place, and now it’s tainted.”
For Lawrence, this episode was evidence of what she perceives as one of the greatest challenges in their conflict with CUS.
“We’re operating on different rules,” she said. “And we are expecting them to follow the same rules, but they are not.”
Casey learned at the meeting that the members of Save Samuels planned to arrive by 2 p.m. to sign up for spots to speak and to secure seats for the 7 p.m. event. By 1 p.m. on September 5, CUS’s supporters were already in line; they secured 16 of the 20 available spaces.
In preparing for this meeting, they had done more than just send one of their own to conduct reconnaissance; they had apparently decided to shift their strategy.
Months before, they had begun by attacking solely LGBTQ content. When they realized this was not a popular position, they shifted to protesting what they described as “pornography for children.”
Both of those concerns, however, could theoretically have been addressed by the library’s proposed changes. Now, therefore, they changed tactics yet again. Their new approach was to describe the library’s decision to purchase and shelve content of which they did not approve as a violation of their rights as parents and taxpayers.
The CUS speakers who had secured the first speaking appointments for the September 5 meeting stuck rigidly to this agenda; at least 10 repeated verbatim that the current library structure constituted “taxation without representation.”
Speaker after speaker lamented that “the SS” — as they now uniformly referred to Save Samuels — “feared democracy.” They also emphasized that any compromise with the library was unacceptable. Casey, the mom who had infiltrated the planning meeting for Save Samuels, was just one of many who repeated the line that “the memorandum of agreement that you, the board of supervisors, has sent must be accepted with no revisions.”
This was not all, however. The CUS speakers explicitly defined the conflict between Clean Up Samuels and Save Samuels as emblematic of broader political divisions in America, and their remarks were therefore rife with references to right-wing talking points.
One speaker, Steven Osvatics, claimed that the library’s board of trustees was funded by George Soros (“No laughter, please,” Cook, the chair of the board, reprimanded the library’s supporters after this assertion).
Anne Miranda, who wore a scapular, crucifix, and saint medal over her plain white T-shirt, spoke especially forcefully. “I moved to Warren County,” she said, “to be in an area that better aligns with my values.” Miranda argued that, since the county had voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump and Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, conservative values — as determined by “good, honest Americans” like her — should rightfully rule the town.
The members of CUS nodded enthusiastically behind Miranda as she spoke. While she was the only speaker to explicitly claim to represent “true America,” her argument clearly resonated with her compatriots.
Library supporters had secured four opportunities to speak; those went to Lawrence; a Catholic named Malaika Beer, who came with a statement signed by 42 other Catholic parents opposing the closure of the library; and Stevi Hubbard and her daughter, Cami.
Stevi Hubbard grew up in Warren County above an ice cream shop run by her mother, and she is the kind of local who knows people by name everywhere she goes. She is also a fiery activist anyone would be happy to have in their movement and would dread to find in their opposition.
She and her daughter are currently being sued by Egger for defamation. According to Egger, Cami is responsible for the distribution of images of Egger, manipulated so that he appears to be wearing KKK robes, that were left on car windshields following a library board of trustees meeting. The trial date in their civil suit is set for December.
“We’re here again,” Stevi Hubbard said when it was her turn to speak. Like the other members of Save Samuels, she wore a T-shirt decorated with the slogan “Protect Reading Freedom / No Banned Books.”
“This has created a lot of strife and division in our community. And you all have the ability to end this, and you’ve chosen not to,” she said. Hubbard had brought with her a printed petition signed by library supporters, the papers taped together into a scroll that she unrolled as she spoke. “[Clean Up Samuels] say they represent the majority … but this is 2,000 of your county constituents. These are the people who vote you in, these are the people who are from here …. These are the people you were elected to represent.”
“This fight is ridiculous,” Hubbard went on, “and these people are disingenuous.” She gestured to Casey, who was sitting in the front row. “Sloane came to our meeting and pretended that she was a supporter. [This is] how these people behave. What kind of religion is teaching them to act that way?”
Hubbard herself now took a different tactic, one she hoped would resonate with the board: The signatories on her petition, she explained, might be Republicans, but they were also willing to “do write-in campaigns as we speak” to remove the responsible members of the board during the November 2023 election.
“If you take the library public,” she concluded, “and you try to remove these LGBTQ books, it’s fiscally irresponsible; you will be sued over and over again. … How much are you willing to pay for their bigotry?”
‘They’re Here for World Domination’
In mid-September, the Friends of Samuels Public Library sent a mailer to every resident of the county. “Imagine Warren County without our library… What would you miss?” they wrote. The mailer urged concerned citizens to contact their county supervisors and ask that they approve the library’s MOA.
Less than a week later, the county agreed to give the library three months more of funding so that the library could remain open while their negotiations continue. According to a statement from Melody Hotek, the president of the library board of trustees, they remain “cautiously optimistic that current negotiations with the Warren County Board of Supervisors will result in a path forward to maintain our mutual mission to serve the community.”
In an email to WhoWhatWhy, CUS reiterated that they remain determined to “hold the library accountable” and “ensure that the library is guided by the will of the people.” Their spokesperson also explained that they are advocating that the library structure be changed so that employees receive state-funded health benefits.
“We hope you stand with the workers who are not receiving their just wages and benefits due to the neo liberal privatization/ shock therapy policies that have gutted the institutions of our county!” they wrote.
This concern for the health care of librarians represents yet another turn in CUS’s justification for dismantling the current management of the library.
Whatever happens to the library, the conflict between Christendom College and the larger community is far from over. In fact, according to the locals who have known them the longest, this is just one skirmish in their long holy war.
“It’s not about the books,” Hubbard told WhoWhatWhy. “Unless you’re in the Catholic Church and doing what they want, it’s coming to you eventually. I don’t know how far up the totem pole you are, but you might as well head it off right here.”
“They’re here for world domination,” Hubbard said. “They have been waiting for this moment. And we weren’t ready.”
Editor’s Note: This article was originally scheduled for publication on October 1. On the evening of October 3, to the surprise and relief of the library’s supporters, the Warren County Board of Supervisors voted to fund the library for the 2023 fiscal year with only minimal modifications to their original agreement.
This article is the first in a multi-part series that examines how some radical religious groups are trying to impose their worldviews on individual institutions, like the library in this case, and entire communities.