Georgia library bars display of Bibles

Friday, February 25, 2000

A Georgia man has accused public library officials of violating his religious liberties by barring him from distributing and displaying religious texts at a city library.

Represented by the American Center for Law and Justice, a law firm founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, James Flournoy sued the Pine Mountain Regional Library System in federal court yesterday. The ACLJ’s 21-page complaint accuses library officials of enforcing an unconstitutional policy that stopped Flournoy from offering religious tracts and placing small Bibles on display at the Manchester Public Library.

The Manchester library, which is part of the Pine Mountain Regional system, provides areas within the library for residents to set out free literature, display other items and post announcements. The library’s “Distribution, Posting and Display of Public Information” policy states that any material distributed or displayed must be “educational, non-partisan and non-sectarian.”

Late last year, Flournoy asked Charles Gee, the Pine Mountain Regional Library System director, if he could place paperback copies of the New Testament in the library’s free literature area and display a copy in another area. In October, Gee responded by letter, saying that the library’s board of trustees had decided that religious materials could not be so placed in the library.

The ACLJ’s complaint says that the library has “opened the free literature area to community individuals and non-profit organizations for purposes of distributing a wide variety of materials.” The library’s actions toward Flournoy amount to religious discrimination and violate the First Amendment, the ACLJ maintains.

“The action taken by this library system violates the Constitution and sends the wrong signal to the community – that the Bible is a banned book,” said Stuart Roth, a senior ACLJ attorney. “The law is very clear about this issue — if a library permits the display and distribution of other materials, it cannot legally exclude the Bible because the material is religious in nature.”

Gee, the library system’s director, was unavailable for comment.

According to the ACLJ, the Manchester library has allowed the National Jewish Voice and the South Georgia Business Journal to be placed in the free literature area.

Flournoy, who says he is under a “religious duty, commonly called the Great Commission, to share and spread” his Christian beliefs, wants the federal court to enjoin library officials from stopping the display of his Bible and other material to declare the library’s distribution policy to be unconstitutional.

Besides infringing on Flournoy’s free-exercise right, the ACLJ argues, the library policy subverts the establishment clause of the First Amendment because it “constitutes hostility toward religion and favors non-religion over religion.”

In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches School District that a New York public school could not constitutionally ban a Christian group from using its facilities to present a film series on rearing children. Although the high court noted that government officials had a “compelling” interest in protecting public property from being used for religious reasons to avoid establishment-clause problems, it concluded that granting equal and open access to all citizens would not undermine church-state separation.

“The District property had repeatedly been used by a wide variety of private organizations,” Justice Byron White wrote for the court in Lamb’s Chapel. “Under these circumstances there would have been no realistic danger that the community would think that the District was endorsing religion or any particular creed and any benefit to religion or to the Church would have been no more than incidental.”