Court Prohibits Library’s Practice of Prohibiting Religious Activities In Meeting Rooms

Intellectual Freedom Issues

On August 14, the district court in the Southern District of Ohio issued an order permanently enjoining the Upper Arlington Public Library from “severing out and excluding activities from its meeting rooms that it concludes are ‘inherent elements of a religious service’ or elements that are ‘quintessentially religious.’ ”

The lawsuit was filed by Citizens for Community Values (CCV), which describes itself as an organization promoting Judeo-Christian moral values for civil government. CCV sought to use the meeting room at the Upper Arlington Public Library for an event it called “Politics in the Pulpit.” In its application for the room, CCV said its representatives would discuss Bible teachings and the law about Christians’ political involvement, as well as allowing a time for prayer and praise concerning Christian involvement in politics.

On reviewing CCV’s application, the library informed CCV that it viewed the time for prayer and praise as “inherent elements of a religious service” that conflicted with the library’s meeting room policy, which forbids use of its meeting rooms for religious services. The library advised CCV that it could use its meeting rooms for the discussion of Bible teaching and the law concerning Christian involvement in politics but must refrain from the prayer and praise activities.

CCV did not use the meeting room. Instead, it filed suit against the Upper Arlington Public Library, claiming that the library’s decision to exclude religious meetings and religious services constituted unconstitutional viewpoint and content discrimination.

In reviewing facts presented by both parties, the court found that the library opened its meeting rooms to a wide range of groups for a wide range of expressive activities, including meetings, discussions, lectures, and other non-profit activities that serve the community, creating a limited public forum. It further found that CCV’s proposed presentation was compatible with the allowed uses of the meeting rooms.

The court then examined the library’s policies and practices to determine if they were viewpoint-neutral and were reasonable in light of the purpose of the forum. Consistent with the Supreme Court’s decision in Good News Club et al. v. Milford Central School, the court held that the library’s policy of prohibiting prayer and singing from events that included other permissible discussion activities constituted unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.

Notably, the court rejected the library’s argument that its policies and practices were consistent with the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Faith Center Evangelistic Ministries v. Glover, which upheld a public library’s policy of excluding worship services from its meeting rooms. The court said that the Ninth Circuit’s holding relied on the church’s own characterization of its event as pure religious worship, whereas CCV never described its event as a worship service. Instead, the Upper Arlington Public Library determined that the prayer and praise activities attached to CCV’s event constituted “worship,” thereby impermissibly entangling the public library with religion in a manner forbidden by the Constitution. The court noted the Ninth Circuit itself cautioned that distinguishing between what is worship and what are permissible forms of religious speech is “a distinction the government and the courts are not competent to make.”

The court also rejected the library’s claim that its actions concerning the CCV’s event were justified by its compelling interest in not violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. It found that the provision of meeting space to CCV did not have the primary effect of advancing religion, as the library did not endorse the event and there was no evidence that religious groups would dominate the use of the library’s meeting room. The court cited the Supreme Court’s decision in Good News Club: “When a limited public forum is available for use by groups presenting any viewpoint, however, we would not find an Establishment Clause violation simply because only groups presenting a religious viewpoint have opted to take advantage of the forum at a particular time.”

The court’s decision only addressed the library’s policy and practice of identifying and severing out meeting elements the library believed are “quintessentially religious.” The court refused to express an opinion on the constitutionality of the library’s written policy excluding “religious services.”

The court’s opinion and order can be found online via this link:

Citizens for Community Values, Inc., v. Upper Arlington Public Library Board of Trustees, Case No. C-2-08-223 (S.D. Ohio, August 14, 2008)

See also: Supreme Court Refuses To Review Library Meeting Room Policy Denying Access to Groups Conducting Religious Worship