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Library's anti-religion policy challenged

A civil-rights law center filed suit yesterday against a public library in Tampa, Fla., for allegedly denying it use of a community meeting room to host a discussion of Christian heritage.

The suit, filed in federal court by lawyers for Liberty Counsel, said officials of the Dunedin Public Library twice denied the legal group use of its meeting room “to conduct meetings open to the public to discuss America’s Christian heritage.” The Orlando-based Liberty Counsel seeks to have the policy ruled unconstitutional.

According to a statement released by the group, the library’s policy regarding the community meeting room forbids “meetings/programs of a political, religious or of a formal social nature. …”

The group says Rebecca Townsend first attempted to reserve the room on its behalf for the heritage discussion Aug. 28, 2002, but was rebuffed in a Sept. 5 letter from the library’s meeting room coordinator, Dorothy Noggle.

In November, Todd Bober – again, on behalf of Liberty – submitted a second request to use the room, to include a discussion “of the Ten Commandments in American law and government.” Again, the group was denied “because the content and viewpoint of the lecture was religious,” the group said in a statement.

“One of the clearest issues in constitutional law is the concept of equal access to public facilities,” said Mathew Staver, president and general counsel for Liberty Counsel. “Government officials may not forbid the use of common meeting rooms, otherwise open to the general public, to persons or groups desiring to address a subject from a religious or Christian viewpoint. Of all places, a public library should welcome diverse views.”

Library officials did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

The library reportedly offers the meeting room on a first come, first served, basis. According to the library’s website, the room is “available for use by nonprofit community groups.”

In a “Frequently Asked Questions” section online, the library says of booking the meeting room: “If your group is a not-for-profit group of an educational, cultural or recreational nature, you may book the meeting rooms free of charge during normal library hours, subject to availability.”