A federal judge ruled Friday that Contra Costa County officials can no longer prohibit a Christian ministry from accessing Antioch Branch Library public meeting rooms just because government employees consider its scheduled activities to be “religious services.” Alliance Defense Fund attorneys filed suit against county officials in 2004 on behalf of the ministry, arguing that the library’s ban was unconstitutional.
“Christian groups shouldn’t be excluded and discriminated against for their beliefs,” said ADF Legal Counsel Tim Chandler. “Christians have a First Amendment right to control the content of their own meetings. The court correctly ruled that the government has no business interfering in what religious groups say.”
After agreeing to allow Hattie Hopkins, the leader of Faith Center Church Evangelistic Ministries, to hold meetings at the Antioch Branch Library on two dates in 2004, Contra Costa Library officials told her toward the end of the first meeting that she could no longer hold meetings there because the county’s policy stated that “library meeting rooms shall not be used for religious purposes.” The library later narrowed the policy to only prohibit meetings it deemed to be “religious services.”
The court determined that allowing library employees to distinguish between what constitutes religious services versus other religious activities amounts to an excessive entanglement of government with religion: “Echoing the Supreme Court in Widmar, the Ninth Circuit determined that the distinction ‘is one that the government and the courts are not competent to make...,’” the district court wrote.
“The Supreme Court said almost 30 years ago that the government is not competent to distinguish between religious services and other types of religious speech. The court here is simply reaffirming that principle,” said Chandler. “This case reflects the true meaning of what Thomas Jefferson meant about a wall of separation between church and state: it is intended to protect the church from government interference.”
After the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear an appeal by ADF attorneys on a preliminary injunction motion in October 2007, both sides in the case filed motions for summary judgment in September 2008, asking the district court at a hearing in January to issue a final ruling on the case. The opinion issued by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California Friday in Faith Center Church Evangelistic Ministries v. Glover permanently prohibits the library from enforcing its “religious services” policy after July 5.
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