Battles over Meeting Rooms

Intellectual Freedom Issues

During the last few years there have been two significant court battles over the use of library meeting rooms by religious groups.  One was in California (Faith Center Church Evangelistic Ministries v. Glover) and the other in Ohio (Citizens for Community Values, Inc. V. Upper Arlington Public Library
Board of Trustees).   They came to almost opposite conclusions.

In the California case it was decided that a Library could bar a religious group from using its meeting rooms for worship.  The Ohio decision said “No, you can’t.”  Of course, the decisions themselves were more nuanced that this but, since neither was heard by the Supreme Court, we don’t have a national precedent to guide us.  What should libraries do?

First, it seems to me that two extremes are putting us library folks in a bind. Some people seem to want to co-opt public space for religious purposes mostly but not exclusively from an evangelical Christian point of view.  They don’t seem have heard of the separation of church and state.  Another group seems to want to completely exclude anything to do with religion from public space.  They don’t seem to have heard of the freedom of religion.

Libraries are about providing a place where people can read, listen to, view and otherwise access whatever they wish — from serious research to recreation.  In collections of books,videos and CDs this is pretty obvious.  What’s so different about meeting rooms?  If a community group wants to gather in a public room for a legal purpose, why should we care what their point of view is?  As long as no single group or view point is allowed to monopolize a limited resource like a public meeting space what difference should it make to us as keepers of the space?

What  should we do?  Simple, set up a set of content neutral rules that mandate appropriate behavior and apply them to all community groups — dog lovers, cat fanciers, lepidopterists, gun collectors, philatelists, cooks, political parties, advocacy groups, the Klan, even church groups!  This won’t eliminate conflict but it just might keep us out of court.