San Francisco (AP) — Government libraries can block religious groups from worshipping in public meeting rooms, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
The decision overturns a lower court order allowing a Christian group to pray in a Contra Costa County library.
The Faith Center Church Evangelistic Ministries, which initially was rejected from holding prayer services at the county’s Antioch branch, had won a court order allowing them to pray in meeting rooms open to other groups. A federal judge said it had a First Amendment right of religion to use the public’s facilities.
But a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling Wednesday in a 2-1 decision.
“Prohibiting Faith Center’s religious worship services from the Antioch meeting room is a permissible exclusion of a category of speech,” Judge Richard Paez ruled.
In dissent, Judge Richard Tallman said the county went too far.
“Rather than adopting a policy of neutrality and placing reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on every group that uses the library meeting rooms, the county has gone to great lengths to exclude a non-disruptive community group based on the views it wishes to express,” Tallman wrote.
Contra Costa County had appealed the lower court’s decision, arguing that religious groups have a right of free access to its public library facilities in the Bay Area, but allowing prayer services would mean taxpayers would be subsidizing religious exercises.
“Religious worship services is a category of speech that we are allowed to exclude,” said Kelly Flanagan, a county attorney. “Had we said Christians can use this but Jews can’t, that would be discrimination.”
The Alliance Defense Fund, which is defending the church group, called the decision “astounding.”
“Religious people … whether they’re Jewish, Muslim or Christian or any other faith under the sun, this is not what the First Amendment was intended to do, to authorize censorship of speech in public,” said Gary McCaleb, an ADF attorney.
The group, he said, would consider appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court or asking the appeals court to reconsider.
In December, the Bush administration weighed in on the case, filing a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the church. The administration said the government “has an interest in enforcement of First Amendment principles providing equal treatment of persons irrespective of their religious beliefs.”
The county’s policy allows the public to use free meeting rooms at its libraries, but prohibits “religious services.” The Sierra Club, Narcotics Anonymous and even the East Contra Costa Democratic Club have used the county’s library facilities.
The case began in 2004 when Faith Center Church Evangelistic Ministries told the county that it wished to hold a “prayer, praise and worship” service that would be open to the public. The group held one session before the county banned it from having others.
The church group sued, demanding equal treatment and claiming it was being discriminated against because of its speech.
The case is Faith Center Church Evangelistic Ministries v. Glover, 05-16132.
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