Court rules public library must permit religious expression

by Dorothy Smith |

(WIKIMEDIAhttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lawrence_Public_Library_-_Lawrence,_MA_-_DSC03595.JPG)

LAWRENCE, Mass. (Christian Examiner) – Boston's Massachusetts District Court ruled recently a public library must open its meeting rooms to religious groups. The ruling determined the library which had denied access to programs including religious viewpoints was unconstitutional.

The court ruled in favor of Liberty Counsel, a faith-based nonprofit litigation, education and policy organization.

In a press release, Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, said the library's meeting room policy, which states that religious groups may "use the library's meeting rooms for administrative purposes but shall not be allowed use for the sake of proselytizing...or otherwise influencing people to a particular belief or point of view, " contradicts the library's mission statement.

"Public libraries cannot exclude religious viewpoints from their common meeting rooms if they are open to the public," said Staver. "Of all places, public libraries should welcome religious viewpoints. Telling members of the public they can talk about any topic but must exclude religious viewpoints is as absurd as it is unconstitutional."

The organization filed a federal lawsuit at the end of June against the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts, alleging two applications made by Liberty Counsel in 2013 and in 2015 to use the library's public meeting room for an "education program promoting a Christian view of the founding of America," were denied based on the library's policy.

That policy said religious groups were allowed to use the library's meeting rooms for administrative purposes but were not allowed to proselytize or be used for "otherwise influencing people to a particular belief or point of view."

As part of its educational mission, Liberty Counsel conducts lectures throughout the country, using employees, volunteers, or affiliates to teach on a wide variety of topics such as cultural issues, current issues regarding family matters and religious freedom, and the role of religion and Christianity in American government.

Of all places, public libraries should welcome religious viewpoints. Telling members of the public they can talk about any topic but must exclude religious viewpoints is as absurd as it is unconstitutional.
- Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel

In the lawsuit, Liberty listed examples of other groups and programs allowed by the Lawrence library, which included monthly concerts by outside artists, local author events and meetings by local Democrat and Republican caucuses.

Liberty's position argued the organization's application was denied specifically because of its program's religious viewpoint and violated its rights under both the US Constitution and the Massachusetts Constitution.

The court ruled within a month of the filing.

In court documents, Liberty Counsel pointed out the library's mission statement which is posted on the library's website and describes itself as "an essential public institution striving to serve as an accessible and responsive information and literary center for all residents of the Lawrence community through its evolving collection of materials and an abiding concern for its customers."

According to the meeting room policy cited in court documents, "community groups whose purposes are non-profit, civic, cultural or educational are encouraged to use the library's meeting rooms for group meetings when the rooms are not being used for their primary purpose—library related activities." At press time, the website's meeting room page appeared to have been removed and was not accessible.

In related news, Liberty Counsel also filed a lawsuit against Wake County in North Carolina in April after their organization's application to use a public meeting room at the Cameron Village Regional Library was denied in 2013 and 2014.

The county changed its policy in May and the two sides reached a settlement in June, according to the NewsObserver. 

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