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When a Library Tries to Shelve Religious Freedom

by Ilene Vick

Ilene Vick of Cookeville, Tennessee,was already an energetic blogger when she hit on the idea of writing a book about personal evangelism … something that might give people too shy or hesitant about sharing their faith the encouragement to speak up. As it turned out, speaking up became quite a challenge for Ilene herself – when she tried to organize some book discussions and ran headlong into a legal culture determined to keep faith out of public buildings.

The thing about writing a book on evangelism is, you don’t want people to just skim it, put it on the bedside table, bury it under a couple of magazines and a coffee cup. You want them to think about it, talk about it, debate it with others … and then if people start getting excited, and want to share the book with their church group or their friends, so much the better.

That’s why I decided to reserve the meeting room at the Putnam County Library for a discussion of my new book. Why not just meet at somebody’s house? Simple. You go to a house, they feel like they’ve got to make a cake, hide the dust bunnies, entertain. And even if you get past all that, and down to the nitty-gritty discussion, well – that’s usually when the kids come tearing through, or the cat jumps up in the lap of the one person who’s allergic.

"If only one person comes to Christ because this library finally lets Christians talk openly about their faith (it) will have been worth it."

No, a library meeting room is the place – quiet, safe, centrally located – and Putnam County’s got a great one. The staff welcomes people to use it for "gatherings of a civic, cultural, or educational character." Non-profits and civic groups use it all the time – you need only fill out an application with your name, contact number, a date, and what you want the room for.

Two years ago, I dropped in to turn in my application and reserve the room for a friendly book club get-together. Everybody welcome. No book sales, no admission fee – just come and let’s talk. I even flattered myself that the staff might be pleased to feature a local author.

The library director said the room was available, then politely asked what my book was about.

"It’s faith-based and it’s called Personality-Based Evangelism," I told her. "I’m a Christian writer, and I have a couple of other books in the works."

"Oh," she said. "Our public room can’t be used for religious purposes. I’m sorry, but we can’t accommodate you."

I was disappointed. Not just that we wouldn’t be talking about my book, but that we couldn’t – because it addressed Christian themes. That bothered me. In the Bible Belt, we can’t discuss faith in a public building? What if I’d pulled a New Testament off the library shelf and pointed out a verse to a friend? Would they have thrown me out of the building?

Come fall, I tried again. Over the summer, I read about a successful intervention the Alliance Defense Fund had made on behalf of Faith Center Evangelical Ministries – a Christian group barred from meeting in an Oakland, California area library. A judge ruled that, by prohibiting their "free exercise" of religious liberty, the library had violated the group’s First Amendment-protected rights.

That situation didn’t sound all that different from mine, so I called the library again. A new director reaffirmed to me: "The only religious purpose the room can be used for is to conduct church business, but not religious instruction." That seemed a strange distinction.

A few months later, yet another director took over, and – ever the optimist – I hoped that new leadership in a new year might bring a new perspective on my request. It hadn’t. So … I contacted the Alliance Defense Fund.

I didn’t know much about them, but found everyone I talked to there to be very receptive and encouraging, and the lawyers who worked with me were always accessible for any question or concern I wanted to talk about. (One pointed out the irony that discussing a book should be prohibited in a library, and I thought that summarized our case pretty well.) ADF filed suit on my behalf in U.S. District Court. The case is still pending, as of this writing.

I let my family and friends and people from my church know what I was doing – and found, to my astonishment, that many of them were not supportive at all. "What’s the big deal?" seemed to be their attitude. "Just host your book club someplace else."

But to me, that wasn’t the point. The point was erosion: if we let our culture, our society, and our government keep nibbling away at our freedoms … those freedoms will soon be gone. What so many considered my "hang up" about a library not letting me discuss my book was – in my mind – a legal noose gradually tightening around the necks of Christians everywhere.

"One ADF attorney pointed out the irony that discussing a book should be prohibited in a library."

Thankfully, one friend finally told me she understood what I was doing. That helped a lot. But even if nobody understands, it’s okay. If only one person comes to Christ because this library finally let Christians talk openly about their faith … this whole battle will have been worth it.

Because to me, this battle isn’t just with a library. It’s part of a larger war on apathy among Christians. The apathy that keeps them from recognizing all the legal ground that’s eroding away from right under their feet… the same apathy that keeps them from standing up and sharing their faith.

To me, that’s a danger Christians should be talking about. And the fact that they can’t – and aren’t really bothered that they can’t – talk about it in a library … well, that speaks volumes.

UPDATE: On January 12, 2011, the Putnam County Library District settled the case and agreed to no longer bar the use of library rooms for "religious purposes."

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