(CN) – A federal judge in San Francisco ruled that a Contra Costa County library must allow a Christian evangelical group to gather in its meeting rooms to “encourage salvation,” saying the library’s ban on religious use of the rooms resulted in “an excessive government entanglement with religion.”
U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White first blocked the religious-use restriction in 2005, but the 9th Circuit vacated that injunction and asked the district court to tailor one that wouldn’t violate the Establishment Clause. In its September 2007 ruling, the federal appeals court said the county could ban an evangelical church from holding worship services in the Contra Costa Library, but could not bar religious organizations from using the library for “secular activities that express a religious viewpoint,” such as workshops that taught people how to read the Bible and pray.
Pastor Hattie Hopkins, leader of the Faith Center Church Evangelistic Ministries, had applied to use a large library room for “prayer, praise and worship open to public,” saying its purpose was “to teach and encourage salvation through Jesus Christ and build up community.” She claimed the neutral location attracted worshippers who were intimidated by traditional church settings.
Librarians and county board members initially approved her application, but library personnel changed their minds after witnessing the first meeting. They said it violated the religious-use restriction, so they barred Hopkins from holding a second “prayer, praise and worship” meeting.
The Faith Center countered with constitutional claims, saying the religious-use ban discriminated against religious groups.
The 9th Circuit sent the case back to Judge White, instructing him to craft an injunction that banned religious services but avoided “the pitfalls of excessive governmental entanglement.”
White found the library’s restriction reasonable and viewpoint-neutral, but held that it violates the Establishment Clause. “[T]he court is faced with a policy that, on its face, results in excessive entanglement,” White wrote.
The county suggested having applicants certify that they would not conduct religious services in the library, but White rejected this notion.
“If the county’s primary concern is to avoid allowing its meeting room to become an ‘occasional house of worship,’ allowing the fox to guard the henhouse is not a satisfactory resolution,” he wrote.
With no other options presented, White said he had “no choice” but to enjoin the county from enforcing the religious-use restriction as drafted.
The injunction takes effect July 6.