The Nation's Pulse

When Religion Is Worse Than Internet Porn

Welcome to the libraries of California's Contra Costa County.

By 10.9.06

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Imagine the local librarian telling your teenager, "If you and your friends reserve a room and use our Internet connection to view pornography, the library will not interfere. Please remember, however, that you cannot hold a religious worship service in the room." Problematic? The Contra Costa Library Commission does not seem to think so.

The Contra Costa Library Commission supports the efforts of the American Library Association to resist any government efforts to filter or monitor its Internet systems. In 2003, it even passed a resolution proclaiming that it "opposes the use of governmental power to suppress the free and open exchange of knowledge and information."

Of course, at the time it already had no problem using government power to suppress religious worship on its premises. It maintained a policy that library rooms "should not be used for religious services." While the East Contra Costa Democratic Club, the Sierra Club, or Narcotics Anonymous could meet without fear of viewpoint discrimination, religious worshippers could not.

Thus, one year later when the Faith Center Church Evangelistic Ministries held a "Women of Excellence" conference which included a praise and worship service, the library staff told them to cease and desist. It also canceled their future meeting scheduled in the library. The library could put up with people talking about saving the environment or the nation but it could not stomach allowing anyone to preach about saving souls. Apparently that is taking tolerance and religious liberty too far.

The local county attorney defended the library by claiming, "Had we said Christians can use this but Jews can't, that would be discrimination," but "religious worship services is a category of speech that we are allowed to exclude." This sounds like someone from a country club saying, "We do not discriminate against African-Americans, Latinos or women, we just do not allow them to talk about certain subjects here."

At first, a district court ruled the prohibition an obvious case of religious discrimination, but last month two Ninth Circuit judges overruled the District Court. There is nothing wrong with prohibiting religious worship in a limited public forum, they argued, as long as the rule is consistently enforced. Plus, they maintained that a library is meant for "the acquisition of knowledge through reading, writing and quiet contemplation," and it should not be allowed to be "transformed into an occasional house of worship."

So if a group of Catholic monks asked for a room for quiet contemplation and reading of the Bible, would that be worship? Of course, this is really the heart of the matter. Does the government now get to define and regulate religious worship? Would a devout Muslim hoping to reserve a room for prayer also be prohibited from using the room? When would a talk by a local pastor become a worship service? If there is anything the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment was meant to forbid is the government defining what religious worship is and is not.

What the library should regulate, of course, is what librarians have always regulated -- the volume of a meeting. In fact, it appears that this was the real problem in this case. The worship was loud. Unfortunately, instead of giving a usual library "shhh!" Contra Costa requested and will now continue to ask religious believers, "Please take your worship outside where it belongs." If I ever get caught holding a prayer meeting with some friends in Contra County Library, however, I may be tempted to respond, "Oh, we're just discussing the porn we're viewing through your internet connection." Unfortunately, the Contra County Commission will likely say, "Whew, for a moment I thought you were holding a religious service!"

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About the Author

Perry L. Glanzer teaches in the School of Education and the Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University.