A Texas man has filed a lawsuit against a public library after staff there refused to let him use the facility’s community room for a religious meeting.
The Mitchell County Public Library loans the room out for “socially useful and cultural activities” as their policy states, but will not allow Seneca Lee to discuss his Christian views on political and social issues in the room. Lee’s suit, filed Wednesday, charges the library with violating his right to freedom of speech.
The library’s policy specifically prohibits the community room from being used for “religious purposes.”
“This is a blatant violation of the Constitution,” said Joel Oster, Lee’s attorney from Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit legal defense organization.
Oster says because the library is government property, people mistakenly think that makes it a “religious-free zone.” It seems to be Liberty’s job to “re-educate” people about how the First Amendment truly works, he says.
“There’s a prevalent myth out there that government property should not contain any mention of religion,” said Oster. “That’s simply not the case.”
Liberty has dealt with similar lawsuits against libraries before. Oster says the cases don’t usually have to go to court; most of the time the defendant will agree to a settlement. Since Liberty is determined that the library change its policy and not only allow Lee to use the room for his religious purposes but also open the room for other religious use, Oster says the library may decide to fight the lawsuit “tooth and nail” if officials with the county are staunchly opposed to religion.
The library may be afraid Lee’s Christian meeting will involve singing and create noise disturbances, says Oster. If that’s the case, he says, they could always make rules about the noise level. Lee, however, doesn’t intend to involve singing in the meeting, only Bible reading, prayer and conversing on current world topics, explains Oster.
“It has become apparent that the Mitchell County Public Library needs a refresher course in the First Amendment,” Mathew Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, said in a statement. “Put simply, libraries must respect the First Amendment rights of those seeking to use library facilities for religious purposes.”
The American Library Association magazine wrote an article last year telling libraries to repeal their policies that forbid religious use of their community rooms, Staver pointed out.
“Apparently, the Mitchell County Public Library officials have chosen to even ignore the American Library Association magazine article …” he states.
According to Liberty, they have never lost a case against a library and expect to settle Lee’s case out of court.
“The issue is very clear-cut. It’s unfortunate that a lawsuit has to be brought and that the public libraries simply won’t follow the law,” Oster said.
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