Religion in American Libraries: Questions and Answers


It has often been said that there are three topics that one does not discuss over dinner: sex, politics and religion. These are three of the most personal, deeply felt and highly charged of human concerns. It should come as no surprise that they are often at the heart of library controversies. Recently, religion has become the explicit focus of several court cases involving libraries.

This Q & A provides guidance to libraries and librarians in protecting First Amendment rights to five freedoms: freedom of the press, speech, petition, assembly and religion. Courts have consistently held that for freedom of the press and speech to be meaningful, people must have the right to receive information: that is, to read, view, hear or access what they choose. In addition, the freedom of (and for) religion has been understood to include both the right of individuals to believe and practice their religion (the “free exercise” clause) and the right of individuals and the state to be free from religion (the “establishment” clause).

In most cases involving religion and libraries, these latter freedoms of, for and from religion are not at issue. Rather, the constitutional principles at stake are usually freedom of expression and the corollary freedom to access the expression of others. For instance, most challenges to materials with religious content infringe on the rights of persons to access constitutionally protected speech rather than limit the practice of religion or one's beliefs. However, sometimes the religion clauses may conflict with each other or with other First Amendment rights (e.g., in the use of meeting rooms or exhibit cases by religious groups, the distribution of religious literature and attempts to proselytize by patrons or staff). This Q & A will also address the most common of these conflicts.

For the purpose of this Q & A “religion” refers to all that touches on the ultimate—God, the gods, or one's understanding of the ultimate foundation of life. It includes formal organized systems of belief and practice and informal individual spiritualities. It also refers to adherents of older religions (e.g., the major world religions), newer religions (e.g., those designated cults by some) and no religion (e.g., agnostics and atheists). Lastly, while this Q & A is most clearly applicable to public libraries, it should in most cases be appropriate for school and academic libraries. Private libraries, especially those associated with religious institutions, may apply these guidelines as appropriate in conformity with their institutional mission.


What types of religious materials may libraries buy for their collections?

Librarians have a professional responsibility to be inclusive rather than exclusive in collection development. Libraries serve all members of their communities and within their budgetary constraints should address all information concerns of all members—including religious information needs. Collections should reflect those needs by providing access to diverse religious thought without becoming a proponent of any of them. Articles I and II of the Library Bill of Rights are clearly inclusive regarding audience (“all people of the community the library serves”) and materials (“all points of view on current and historical issues”). For additional information, see Diversity in Collection Development: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.

May libraries collect religious fiction?

Yes. Collection development and materials selection should be done according to standards set forth in library policy that are tailored to the community that the library serves. These may include: contemporary significance or permanent value, community interest and/or demand, artistic and literary excellence, cost and format. Religious fiction is not easily classified despite attempts to define genres such as Christian Fiction and Inspirational Fiction. Nevertheless, excluding religious fiction would be a violation of the Library of Rights: “Materials should not be excluded because of origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.&lrquo; Librarians should distinguish between providing access to religious fiction and the appearance of supporting or endorsing a particular religious belief.

May libraries label religious materials in their collections and, if so, what kinds of labels are appropriate?

Yes, but some considerations are necessary. People of all persuasions and traditions have sincere, heartfelt concerns when their government in the form of a public library addresses religious issues. As long as the selection of materials to be labeled is inclusive of all such persuasions and traditions and the labels used are viewpoint-neutral directional aids and not pejorative, this practice would not violate the Library Bill of Rights.

This practice of applying specific religious symbols to materials—such as using a cross to label Christian fiction—violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment and the Library Bill of Rights. Some libraries seek to avoid entanglement with religion by instead using a non faith-specific label to identify “inspirational fiction,” including material that does not have religious-based content. For additional information, see Labeling and Rating Systems: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights and Questions and Answers on Labeling and Rating Systems.

What practical advice can be given for writing collection development policies for materials about religion?

Collection development policies should reflect the goals and objectives of the library as set forth in its mission statement and incorporate professional standards established in the Library Bill of Rights and Code of Ethics of the American Library Association. The policy may include a reference to the role of the library as a limited public forum providing access to the marketplace of ideas. For example, the library provides free access to different points of views and ideas. Collection development shall be content-neutral so that the library reflects a diversity of ideas including controversial points of view.

Are religious websites different or special?

No. Library users have the right to access any and all constitutionally protected speech, including religious speech. Religious content is no more or less protected than any other type of speech. If guides to websites are developed by the library, they should follow principles similar to those used in preparing guides for print collections.

Meeting Rooms

Should library policy allow religious groups to use library meeting rooms?

Yes. Courts have consistently held that libraries may not exclude religious groups from their meeting rooms solely because the group is religious in character or because the meeting may include religious activities. Many precedents exist for the use of public facilities (e.g., school auditoriums or park pavilions) by all types of community groups, including religious groups for religious purposes. Courts that have considered the question have consistently held that libraries are limited public forums for the receipt of information. In turn libraries may designate areas within their facilities as limited public forums for community use in the exchange of information and may create rules for their use. As with collections, these rules should be content-neutral and address only behavioral restrictions (time, place and manner). Consistency is crucial: all groups should be treated the same and subject to the same rules, such as rental fees, frequency restrictions, noise policies or food bans.

What if a religious group wants to collect money as part of their meeting?

The same policies regarding money should apply to all groups. If nonprofit groups are allowed to collect membership dues during meetings, then religious groups may collect an offering. If no group may collect money for any purpose while using a library meeting room, then collecting an offering should not be permitted.

Should food and beverages, including sacramental items, be permitted?

Again, the same policies about food and beverages should apply to all groups. If alcohol is not permitted for any group, then the use of sacramental wine would not be allowed; however, it would be wise to avoid rules that, even though unintentional, privilege one religion over another. For instance, the Catholic Mass and the Jewish Seder include the use of wine while many but not all Protestant groups use grape juice in their observance of the Eucharist. Any fees related to cleaning services should apply equally.

May libraries prohibit worship services?

The safest course of action is to provide the same access and apply the same rules of use (time, place and manner) to all community groups. No court has ever ruled that a library must exclude religious groups or religious worship. Only one case has addressed the “worship&lrquo; question. In Faith Center Church Evangelistic Ministries v. Glover, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Contra Costa, California, library could exclude worship services from its meeting rooms when a group self-identified its meeting as a worship service. 1 In doing so, the Ninth Circuit cautioned that the library could not prohibit groups from engaging in other religious activities, including reading, Bible discussions, Bible instruction, praying, singing, sharing testimony, and discussing political or social issues. The Ninth Circuit then asked the trial court to determine if Contra Costa could apply its policy without violating the Establishment Clause by requiring library staff to decide whether a particular religious activity was worship. On remand the trial court ruled that Contra Costa's policy required library staff to determine whether the proposed use of the meeting room constituted a worship service, a violation of the Establishment Clause. The trial court permanently enjoined the Contra Costa library from enforcing its ban on worship services. For additional information, see Deborah Caldwell-Stone, Supreme Court Refuses To Review Library Meeting Room Policy Denying Access to Groups Conducting Religious Worship and Court Prohibits Library’s Practice of Prohibiting Religious Activities In Meeting Rooms.

Is a hymn sing permissible?

All groups should be subject to the same policies regarding noise. For instance, if a meeting room were soundproofed, there would be no reason to prohibit a hymn sing or, for that matter, a workshop for local rock music percussionists.

What should be considered when drafting a meeting room policy?

  • In general, the following areas should be covered:
  • Restrictions on length of meetings
  • Frequency of using a room (e.g., no more than once a week/month)
  • Rental fees for room or use of equipment
  • Costs for cleaning if food or beverages are allowed
  • Noise policies
  • Consequences of not following policies
  • An appeals procedure

Above all, policies should be applied equally to all groups.

Exhibits and Displays

Should religious groups be allowed to use library exhibit or display space?

Libraries are not required to open display or exhibit space to community groups. If libraries choose to open their exhibit and display space to community groups, space should be provided on an equitable basis to all groups that request it, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use. A library may wish to consider the amount of such space and its location when deciding whether to open it to community groups. Article II of the Library Bill of Rights states, “Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation” and “Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.” For additional details, see &ldquo:Exhibit Spaces and Bulletin Boards: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.”

What practical advice can be given for writing exhibit or display space policies?

Exhibit Spaces and Bulletin Boards: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights states:

Written policies for exhibit space use should be stated in inclusive rather than exclusive terms. For example, a policy that the library's exhibit space is open “to organizations engaged in educational, cultural, intellectual, or charitable activities” is an inclusive statement of the limited uses of the exhibit space. This defined limitation would permit religious groups to use the exhibit space because they engage in intellectual activities, but would exclude most commercial uses of the exhibit space.

  • Some of the considerations that may be included in writing policies are:
  • Rules or guidelines of the governing body (school board, library trustees, etc.)
  • How often a group may use display or exhibit space
  • The length of time for a display
  • The kind of materials that may be displayed and any limits on the library’s liability
  • Whether the library will require or give priority to display requests that highlight the library collection(s)
  • Whether the library will require or give priority to display requests that are aimed at the library’s primary constituency
  • Whether the library will allow notices soliciting funds, announcing meeting times, or giving contact information for the sponsoring group
  • Whether to require that displays be viewpoint-neutral, educational, or informative
  • Whether to prohibit single-holiday displays (allowing displays of all holidays or observations of the season or of the month) and
  • Giving the library the right to refuse displays and providing due process for appeals of decisions.

Literature Distribution

Should the library allow religious groups to distribute religious literature in community distribution space?

If the library provides space for community groups to leave literature, religious groups should be allowed to do so on an equitable basis to all groups that use this space, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups leaving such literature.

Policies covering the number of individual items of literature, the size and definition of such items and the length of time that items will be left out for distribution should be considered.

Accommodating Religious Beliefs

The issues addressed so far (collections, meeting room, exhibits and literature distribution) are all related to the primary purpose of libraries, to serve as a limited public forum for the receipt of information. The key word here is “receipt.” Libraries provide space where people may read, view, listen to or otherwise access information or expression of interest to them. Libraries are not traditional public forums for expressive behavior by patrons or employees except when libraries explicitly designate space for the exchange of information such as meeting rooms or exhibit cases. The following questions are related to the religious views that patrons and employees bring with them into the library. Because of this context they are more community relations and employment issues rather than intellectual freedom issues.

A. Patron Religious Beliefs

What accommodations should librarians make for religious beliefs of patrons?

While libraries and librarians should respect the diverse religious traditions of their communities, libraries exist to serve the information needs of all users in their communities. Library policies should be applied equally to shelving of religious books, service to patrons, or access to religious web sites as they would be to any other shelving, service or web access. In addition privileging one religious tradition over others could violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

What about religious dress and symbols?

Dress codes for patrons, if a library has one at all, should be limited to maintaining public health and safety.

What about special shelving requests for scriptures and other religious materials?

Placing specific materials on shelves according to religious point of view or status within a given faith community rather than according to the cataloging system used in the library can make it difficult for users to locate such materials. It would be a violation of the Library Bill of Rights to give special treatment to a specific sacred text or to limit access to such a text. It is appropriate to add additional titles or versions of a text to the collection to meet community needs or interest but not to remove or sequester them. The scriptures or religious materials of all religions should be treated equitably.

Attempting to accommodate competing and quite possibly conflicting demands for special shelving for specific items may be impossible given physical constraints. On the other hand, if a library sets aside tables or shelves for specialized materials or purposes such as atlases, directories, college guides, dictionaries or local history, it would be appropriate to set aside shelving for scripture, as long as all scriptures are treated equally, including texts that occupy a similar status among other groups (e.g., The Humanist Manifesto II).

How about gender relations?

Generally, library staff members should serve both men and women equally regardless of gender. For example, if a person comes to the reference desk with a highly personal question of a sexual nature (health, birth control, rape, etc.) and expresses a desire to talk with a person of the same gender, libraries may accommodate special requests but are not required to do so. Patrons are always free to seek or not seek service from any staff person they wish.

B. Employee Religious Beliefs

What accommodations should libraries make for the religious beliefs of employees?

Employee rights to self expression including religious expression are more restricted than those of the general public for the simple reason that they are employed for a purpose. The workplace is not a public forum for the unfettered expression of one's views. For additional guidance, see ALA Policy 53.1.12 and “ Questions & Answers on Speech in the Workplace.”

What are the library’s responsibilities in accommodating employee religious observances?

As a general rule, employers should accommodate employee religious observance when it does not substantially interfere with the library's mission of providing access to information to the public. Such accommodations should be equitable for all religions. Informal accommodation among staff (e.g., trading coverage of service points on holidays) is one approach.

What limits should/may libraries place on the wearing of religious symbols by employees?

Libraries are limited public forums for the receipt of information by the public, not for speech by employees. Employers may regulate employee speech including symbolic speech that interferes with the mission of the library. In general, the wearing of modest symbols or statements of one's belief (religious, political, etc.) may be permitted. However, if the display of such expressions interferes with the library's mission, all such expressions should be banned regardless of expressive content (e.g., no religious or political jewelry, message buttons, or message t-shirts).

Can employees proselytize or witness to personal beliefs?

One employee’s personal expression can easily become another person's harassment. Employees should respect each other's freedom to practice their religions and to be free from the religion of others. Failure to respect the wishes of coworkers can result in charges of harassment for the individual. Failure to respect and deal with claims of harassment by an employee can result in charges of fostering a hostile work environment for the library. Once again, libraries should be careful to avoid favoring one religion over another. In the workplace, people are free to believe as they want but their behavior, including speech (even religious speech), may be regulated. For additional information, see Karen Sutherland, Freedom of Speech in the Workplace: The First Amendment Revisited or Eugene Volokh, Freedom of Speech vs. Workplace Harassment Law—A Growing Conflict.

Can libraries establish dress codes for employees?

Dress codes for employees, if a library has one at all, should be limited to maintaining public health and safety and the ability of the library to execute its mission. Therefore, the library should have a substantial mission-related reason for any dress restrictions. For instance, it is hard to imagine a mission-related rationale for banning such religiously sanctioned apparel as yarmulkes, veils, head-coverings, shawls or burqas that is not rooted in cultural or religious prejudice.

Can an employee refuse to answer questions on the basis of individual conscience?

No. Article VII of ALA's Code of Ethics states that: “We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.”

There is no valid parallel between claims of individual conscience and “conscientious objection” to military service. Enlistment or commissioning is voluntary; once in, military service is compulsory. The conscientious objector’s claim is that he or she cannot perform his or her duties in good conscience and should be released from them. If a library employee claims conscientious objector status, she or he is free to seek other employment if unable in good conscience to continue to perform her or his primary responsibility of meeting the information needs of the public. For additional information, see Guidelines on Religious Exercise and Religious Expression in the Federal Workplace.

1Decisions of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals apply only to states within the Ninth Circuit [California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Montana, Idahno, Nevada, Alaska, Hawaii, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands]

Created 2010