February 17, 2018

Suit Convinces Eighth PL to Revise Meeting Room Policy to Allow Religion, Politics

Lawrence Public Library, MA  Photo credit: Daderot. Licensed under CC0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lawrence_Public_Library_-_Lawrence,_MA_-_DSC03595.JPG#/media/File:Lawrence_Public_Library_-_Lawrence,_MA_-_DSC03595.JPG

Lawrence Public Library, MA
Photo credit: Daderot. Licensed under CC0

A public library in Lawrence, MA., has changed its meeting room policy, eliminating restrictions against religious or political expression in that space, after the city settled a lawsuit brought by Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit Christian organization that has championed a number of high-profile conservative political causes in recent years.

It was the eighth time since 1999 that Liberty Counsel has sued in federal court to challenge a library’s meeting room policy. The eight lawsuits, involving libraries across America, have resulted in one summary judgment for plaintiff; seven out-of-court settlements similar to the Lawrence, MA, outcome; and eight meeting room policies revised.

Liberty Council’s latest target was Lawrence Public Library (LPL), a two-branch system less than an hour north of Boston. The nonprofit, which also goes by the name Freedom Foundation, filed the lawsuit in June after twice being denied use of an LPL meeting room—once in July 2013 and again in January 2015—for “an educational and civic program” that promoted a “Christian view” on the founding of America.

Anita Staver, Liberty Counsel’s president, first faxed a signed application to use LPL’s meeting room on July 16, 2013, for a two-hour program, the lawsuit stated. The session was intended to include “prayer, singing of foundational era hymns and a presentation from a Christian viewpoint that encourages the return of our nation of our nation to its Christian values and ideals.”

That same day, as recounted in the lawsuit, Library Director Maureen Nimmo called Staver to say the application would be denied based on LPL’s existing policy. According to the lawsuit, LPL’s then meeting room policy stated that, “Political and religious groups may use the library’s meeting rooms for administrative purposes but shall not be allowed use for the sake of proselytizing, campaigning, or otherwise influencing people to a particular belief or point of view.”

More than a year later, on January 6, 2015, Liberty Counsel emailed another application, again from Staver, to reserve a meeting room, this time for a February 5 program “for our educational and civic program on the founding era of America,” the lawsuit stated.

In her letter, which was included as part of the lawsuit documentation, Staver said, “the nature and religious viewpoint of our program has not changed,” but expressed Liberty Counsel’s hope that LPL’s policy had.

Liberty Counsel received no word from LPL about its latest application for more than three weeks, the lawsuit said. Finally, on January 29 Nimmo was reached by telephone, at which time she again denied use of the meeting room, citing the trustees’ policy. On June 15, the group filed suit, arguing that the policy violated Liberty Counsel’s First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion and its Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law.

On September 18, United States District Judge Allison D. Burroughs stipulated final judgment in favor of Liberty Counsel after the two sides reached a settlement. The library agreed to change its meeting room policy and Liberty Counsel was awarded $100 in nominal damages, Mat Staver, Anita Staver’s husband and Liberty Counsel’s founder and chairman, told Library Journal.

“I think it’s very satisfactory,” Staver said of the resolution. “We got the policy changed. A library ought to be a place where you have the opportunity to express different viewpoints. Certainly the library shelves are stocked with different viewpoints.”

Staver said Liberty Council conducts programs around the country similar to the one it tried to conduct in Lawrence.

LPL decided to alter its meeting room policy in August, before any settlement was reached, Raquel Ruano, an assistant attorney for the City of Lawrence, told LJ. Ruano said the lawsuit “highlighted for us that a change was needed” and the policy was changed accordingly.

The revised meeting room policy, available on LPL’s website, makes no mention of political or religious groups, and it prohibits only “private social events such as family reunions or wedding receptions” and “meetings of any group or organization that is soliciting business, trying to make a profit or fundraising.”

A broader mission

Based in Orlando, FL, Liberty Counsel does not only concern itself with libraries. It describes itself as an “international non-profit litigation, education, and policy organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family.” The organization is currently providing attorneys for Kim Davis, the Rowan County, KY, clerk who refused to grant same-sex couples marriage licenses after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June. The organization has successfully defended a high school principal and athletic director from criminal contempt charges involving a mealtime prayer, and has also sued to challenge the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has classified Liberty Counsel as a hate group, saying it advocates “anti-LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) discrimination under the guise of religious liberty.” A statement on the Liberty Counsel website says SPLC has defamed the organization.

Change from coast to coast

Liberty Counsel has built a string of successes in its challenges of library community room policies. In June, litigation brought against Wake County, NC, ended with an outcome almost identical to the Lawrence case. Liberty Counsel filed the North Carolina lawsuit after twice being denied use of a meeting room (in 2013 and 2014) at the Cameron Village Regional Library, and a settlement resulted in the county’s policy being changed to allow use by political and religious groups.

Other Liberty Counsel cases involved libraries in Dunedin, FL (2003); Newton Falls, OH (2006); Seaside, OR (2012); Plainfield, IL (2012); and Woodland Park, CO, according to information provided by the American Library Association (ALA). All five of these cases ended with a settlement and a new library policy regarding its community rooms.

In 1999, a Wisconsin man sued the city of West Allis, claiming it violated his right to free speech by denying him use of a library community room because he planned to include religious content. Liberty Counsel provided legal representation for the plaintiff. The case ended in a summary judgment for plaintiff—the only one of these cases that was not settled—and the West Allis library changed the policy.

Advice from ALA

ALA adopted its own advocacy policy toward library meeting rooms as far back as 1991. Based on its Library Bill of Rights, ALA advises libraries to develop and publish guidelines that do not pertain to “the content of a meeting or to the beliefs or affiliations” of the group using the space.

“If a library opens its meeting rooms to a wide variety of civic organizations, then the library may not deny access to a religious organization,” ALA’s recommendation states. “Libraries may wish to post a permanent notice near the meeting room stating that the library does not advocate or endorse the viewpoints of meetings or meeting room users.”

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom, told LJ that libraries that continue to maintain written policies barring religious or political content in meeting room programs “are risking litigation” and “we advise them to change that.”

She added that Liberty Counsel is not the only Christian organization using the courts to help open meeting rooms to religious events. Alliance Defending Freedom, founded in 1994, has argued at least two lawsuits challenging a meeting room policy, Caldwell-Stone said.