Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion, Faith Center Church Evangelistic Ministries v. Glover, that affirmed a northern California library’s decision to deny a church use of its meeting rooms for religious worship services.
The Faith Center Church filed its lawsuit after the Antioch Library in Contra Costa County in California barred the church from using its meeting rooms. The library instituted the ban after the church circulated flyers inviting the public to join it at the library for religious worship. The library’s meeting room policy prohibits use of its meeting rooms for “religious services or activities.”
While the district court held that the restriction on access for “religious services” was unconstitutional, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court’s decision and upheld the library’s policy. The Ninth Circuit held that the library had a legitimate interest in screening and excluding meeting room activities that could interfere with the library’s primary mission of providing a quiet place for reading, and that the library could reasonably conclude that a worship service could undermine the library’s purpose of making itself available to the whole community by disrupting the library and alienating other users.
The Ninth Circuit cautioned that the library could not prohibit religious groups from engaging in other religious activities, including reading, Bible discussions, Bible instruction, praying, singing, sharing testimony, and discussing political or social issues. They noted that it would be difficult for a library to distinguish between these kinds of activities and a worship service, but when a religious group self-identifies its activity as a religious worship service, as Faith Center did in its flyers, the library could apply its policy and exclude the group from its meeting rooms.
Theresa Chmara, general counsel for the Freedom to Read Foundation, offers guidance for libraries that may be reviewing their own meeting room policies in the aftermath of this decision:
- the decision applies only to the Ninth Circuit [California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Alaska, Hawaii, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands] and appears to be a departure from the interpretation of other courts on use of meeting rooms by religious groups;
- ultimately the majority opinion relied on Faith Center Church’s own description of its meeting as a “worship” service and failed to address a dissenting judge’s concern that librarians cannot — and should not — be trying to make these determinations;
- no court has held that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause requires libraries to prohibit meeting room use by religious groups engaged in worship;
- if a library within the Ninth Circuit chooses as a matter of policy to exclude “religious worship,” the library could open itself up to “as applied” legal challenges if it starts trying to determine when a group has crossed the line from a “meeting” to a “worship service.”
Legal counsel for the plaintiff, Faith Center Church, say the church will continue to pursue its legal remedies by asking the lower courts for a permanent injunction (the Supreme Court was asked to review a temporary injunction.)
Anyone with questions about the lawsuit or meeting room policies can call or write the Office for Intellectual Freedom for assistance. OIF can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 800-545-2433, ext. 4223.