Some months ago, officials in Elk River, Minn., reversed a policy banning religious meetings at its public library at the urging of Alliance Defense Fund attorneys.
Now letters have gone out from ADF to more than 150 other government jurisdictions across the nation asking them also to correct policies that illegally target the religious content of community activities.
“I think it’s finally gotten to a head,” ADF senior legal counsel Joel Oster told WND today. “The Supreme Court in 2001 in the Good News case sealed the deal on this issue. It should not be litigated any more.”
But the organization explained litigation might be needed if officials don’t change suspect policies in the Chambers County library in Valley, Ala.; the Carlsbad, Calif., city library system; the Old Lyme-Phoebe Griffin Noyes library in Old Lyme, Conn.; the Gwinnett County public library in Lawrenceville, Ga.; the Sycamore, Ill., public library; the Clinton, Ind., public library; the Nelson County public library in Bardstown, Ky.; and the Lynn, Mass., public library.
Also, the Ann Arbor, Mich., district library; the Pamlico County public library in Bayboro, N.C.; and others in Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas were sent letters.
A total of 151 governmental entities that control more than 750 public facilities are receiving notice, according to the ADF.
The organization explained government officials “frequently refuse or restrict Christian churches, groups, and individuals when they attempt to reserve facilities otherwise open to the public at schools, libraries, parks, and community centers – a practice routinely determined to be unconstitutional by the courts.”
“Christians shouldn’t be excluded and restricted from using public meeting rooms and other facilities simply because they plan to express a Christian viewpoint,” Oster said. “The Constitution prohibits the government from deciding who can and cannot use space based upon which viewpoints are being discussed during those meetings. Public officials can’t give preferential treatment to some views over others.”
He said that many times inappropriate policies – imposing illegal limits on Christian and other religious groups – have gone unchallenged, and, as a result, churches and others are prevented from discussing their faith, while secular subjects are not banned.
ADF reported that as a result of its litigation over the years, policy changes have been made that already affect more than 1,900 other public locations.
One such case was Elk River, Minn. City officials there stated a library meeting room was “free of charge, for use by community members for non-religious, non-commercial meetings, which are open to the public.” The policy further said “usage may not be for prayer or other worship purposes.”
The city allowed reduced rate rentals for park facilities to all Elk River non-profits, except groups using them for “prayer or other worship purposes.” That meant those engaging in religious expression would have to pay the full rate charged to commercial and out-of-town groups.
Elk River resident Brad Bjorkman approached the city council about its discriminatory policy, and one member responded that the policy would not be changed and that his only option was to sue the city. Bjorkman then contacted ADF attorneys, who sent a letter on his behalf to Mayor Stephanie Klinzing urging the city to change its policy based upon well-established First Amendment case law.
The city council soon agreed to remove the problematic restrictions.
Oster told WND the heart of the problem is the longstanding insistance that there is a “separation of church and state” in the U.S. Constitution.
He pointed out the concept is not in the Constitution and a lot of education will be needed before the belief is corrected.
“The Supreme Court has been very clear. The Constitution does not require government to be hostile to religion,” he said. “Religious speech clearly is protected.”
He said what is forbidden is for the government to establish a church and require citizens to attend or support it.
“Whether it’s the denial of religious services and seminars, Vacation Bible Schools, church potlucks, Bible studies, or a Christian author discussing an upcoming book, countless groups and individuals are having their constitutional rights violated while those with non-religious affiliations enjoy unrestricted access for their activities,” Oster said.
The Elk River case was resolved last year. Other similar cases handled by ADF include a public library in Osceola County, Fla., that barred a Christian from holding a seminar; a Contra Costa, Calif., public library that banned meetings officials labeled “religious”; and a Bronx church prohibited from renting government facilities.