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Patti Wigington

Library Has to Let Church Use Meeting Space

By June 25, 2009

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Here's an interesting piece out of California. A federal court has ruled that a county library must allow a religious group to use its meeting rooms, because the library's policy prohibiting religious groups "resulted in excessive entanglement of government with religion.”

It all started back in 2004, when the Faith Center Church Evangelistic Ministries went to the Contra Costa County Library's Antioch branch, and asked to use the meeting room. They were refused, because the library had a ban on religious services in the room. A preliminary injunction prevented the library from enforcing the policy, but in 2006, a Circuit Court agreed that "barring worship services from the library’s meeting rooms was a permissible exclusion of a category of speech.” The church filed an appeal, and went back to U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White, the judge who had granted the preliminary injunction in 2004. White said in an opinion on June 19 that "the policy put library managers into an unconstitutional position of deciding what constitutes religious services when considering applications to use its meeting rooms, which are open to public use."

In Ohio, a public library was sued for not allowing a Christian fundamentalist group to hold services there, and back in August a judge ruled that "prohibiting activities that [the library] concludes are "inherent elements of a religious service" or elements that are "quintessentially religious" is unconstitutional."

Here's where I'm puzzled. As an entity that accepts funding from the government, most libraries should be in a position of determining what constitutes religious services. They're in this position not because they want to repress people's freedom of speech, but because they must determine whether the use of a publicly funded room falls within the guidelines of the Establishment Clause.

Not only that, but what about the fact that a library is... well, a library? It's supposed to be a reasonably quiet place where we can read, do homework, maybe surf the Internet or whatever. If some group wants to meet there, that's fine, but do they have to allow any and all comers? What if a religious group's meeting includes chanting, drumming, and generally whooping it up? What if a white supremacist group wants to meet there? The ability to make a decision about the proper use of their meeting room has been taken away from the library, and this seems unfair to library patrons. It will be interesting to see if Contra Costa appeals Judge White's decision.

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June 30, 2009 at 8:58 am
(1) ReikiMaster says:

Here in Tampa, I have noticed that the library around the corner allows both Atheist meetings and church groups to congregate. As long as they are tit for tat (non-discriminating) I say “Why not?” As far as the noise issue, I have never heard a peep from either group once the door is closed. It’s the people in the actual library who usually break rules: people talk loudly on cell phones, children run around unattended while parents browse, cell phone ringers blast loud music — it’s definitely a different ballgame of the expected “sssshhhhh”-mode of my childhood.

June 30, 2009 at 10:31 am
(2) Deb K says:

Ok, I’m confused. Six months ago, at Christmas/Hannakah/Solstice, folks were having a fit because of Santa and the Nativity, etc., on the lawns of some government buildings (PUBLIC PROPERTY), saying it was ‘against separation of church and state.” Still, there are court cases trying to remove anything resembling the 10 Commandments from PUBLIC PROPERTY. Now, they want the Public Library (again PUBLIC PROPERTY) to house church meetings without blinking an eye. I’m confused. Either it’s ok to have religious displays on public land, placed there by the public, or its not. Somebody make up my mind! :D
Personally, I think there ought to be a better place to hold your church service than in the Library. Surely there are other places more suitable. IMHO. Second, don’t the courts have enough to do without adding something like this to their docket?? Seriously??

June 30, 2009 at 12:26 pm
(3) Diana says:

Library rooms are usually free to rent if you are not charging a fee. Some libraries will not let you use their rooms if you are charging. That makes them the perfect meeting place for this type of event.

Allowing a meeting is not condoning a religion the way that putting up holiday decorations are. Many of the nativities are OWNED by the city. It is a way for the population in control to state that this (or these) religions are acceptable.

I think that as long as any group is quite and respectful of the rules that they should be able to rent a public room. I say that for any group, even the hate groups. They may be despicable, but they have the same rights that we do.

June 30, 2009 at 12:58 pm
(4) tasia says:

I agree with Diana.

“As an entity that accepts funding from the government, most libraries should be in a position of determining what constitutes religious services” — I disagree with this. I see it as similar to public schools allowing student-led religious clubs to meet on campus. As long as it’s available to any and all comers, I don’t see the problem. A public space available for rental by private groups should be open to ANY private group. Of course they can impose logical restrictions based on noise levels, safety, legal codes, etc. (thus they can say no drumming, no incense, no animals), but other than that, I don’t think it’s the library’s business what that group chooses to do in that rented space.

June 30, 2009 at 1:33 pm
(5) LuneArgentee says:

Most of these decisions regarding religion in public buildings must be “all or none” decisions. Either everyone has a right to be involved, or none do. I can understand the library attempting to avoid all issues by not allowing any religious meetings, but I can see how it would be a problem for the library to determine what constitutes a religious meeting and what doesn’t. As long as a group does not expect to leave religious symbols or books in the room when they’re not there, then there shouldn’t be complaints, as long as the meetings take place in a closed meeting room.

However, I could see the library’s side of it: what if a fundamentalist, evangelical church group that regularly meets at the library finds out that the library is also allowing the local coven to hold meetings in the same room and decides to complain? We’ve seen this before and it always ends up a big mess.

I agree with Diana on the religious displays. If the local government is going to set up or allow religious displays at certain holidays, then it has to allow all holiday displays that are requested to be set up, as long as they are not obscene or similarly objectionable.

July 1, 2009 at 4:57 pm
(6) Dee Reinhart says:

Can someone tell me why the church can ban Wiccan meetings in the church halls, which are rented to the public, but a Library which is owned and run by the public, including Wiccans, Pagans, Christians and others, cannot ban use of the room/hall for any religious meetings?
I would say there is a double standard out there. Just because Christianity is seemingly the most accepted religion, does not make it the best and certainly not the oldest, nor does it make them all powerful, although it would seem that is what they want us to believe.
This country was based on religious freedom. How about showing that to all religions, not just the one that enjoys popularity at the time.

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