Tuesday, October 2, 2007
High Court Leaves Standing Ban on Worship at Public Library
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling allowing public libraries that open their meeting rooms to private groups to prohibit use of the rooms for religious worship was left standing yesterday by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The justices, on the first day of their 2007-2008 term, denied without comment or dissent a petition by Faith Center Church Evangelistic Ministries to review last September’s ruling in favor of Contra Costa County.
That ruling overturned an injunction granted by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White of the Northern District of California, who held that the policy was presumptively unconstitutional because it treated religious worship differently than the various secular activities that the county permitted to occur in the libraries.
Judge Richard A. Paez, in his opinion for the Ninth Circuit, said the policy, which allows meeting rooms to be used during library hours for “educational, cultural and community related meetings, programs and activities,” but not for “religious services,” was reasonable in that it permitted the county to avoid entangling the library system in Establishment Clause issues.
Faith Center’s spiritual leader, Pastor Hattie Mae Hopkins, testified that many individuals need to hear about the gospel of Jesus Christ but never enter a traditional church building. To reach those individuals, Hopkins said, she holds meetings and worship services in non-church buildings such as libraries.
Faith Center applied for and was granted permission to use a meeting room at Antioch Library. A flyer advertising the event divided the day’s activities into a morning “Wordshop” and an afternoon “Praise and Worship” service with a sermon by Hopkins.
Toward the end of the afternoon service, library staff informed Faith Center representatives that they were not permitted to use the meeting room for religious activities. The library subsequently rescinded its permission for Faith Center to use the room at a future date.
Faith Center sued to enjoin the county from excluding Faith Center’s proposed religious meetings, asserting that the county’s policy barring religious services constituted viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment.
In granting the preliminary injunction, White reasoned that religious worship is speech protected by the First Amendment, religious worship cannot be distinguished from other forms of religious speech, and the exclusion of religious worship from otherwise permissible speech of a religious nature constitutes viewpoint discrimination.
But Paez said the meeting rooms are limited public forums—so that restrictions governing their access are permitted so long as they are viewpoint neutral and reasonable in light of the purpose served by the rooms—because of the nature of libraries and because the county requires prior permission for access to the meeting rooms, charges a fee, and excludes schools from using the rooms “for instructional purposes as a regular part of the curriculum” and organizations who wish to engage in “religious services.”
Senior U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton of the Eastern District of California, sitting by designation, concurred separately, while Judge Richard C. Tallman argued in dissent that the county was engaged in viewpoint discrimination because its facilities were open to some members of the community and closed to others, depending on “the way an applicant’s viewpoints are expressed.”
In permitting “[p]olitical organizations like the local Democratic Party” to use its meeting rooms, while denying their use to Faith Center and other religious groups, “[t]he County draws an arbitrary line in the sand,” Tallman argued.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company