Religion in American Libraries Q&A

Collections l  Meeting Rooms  l  Programming  l  Exhibits and Displays  l  Literature Distribution  l  Accommodating Religious Beliefs  


The First Amendment establishes the right to five freedoms: freedom of the press, freedom of speech, the right to petition the government, the right to peaceably assemble, and freedom of (and freedom from) religion. This Q&A provides guidance to publicly funded libraries and library workers about protecting the freedom of religion in libraries. This document is most clearly applicable to public libraries, and in most cases is 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 missions.

Freedom of religion in the First Amendment has two parts. First, the government is forbidden to establish a state religion, or endorse or favor particular religious beliefs (the establishment clause). Second, individuals are guaranteed the right to believe in religion, or not, as they choose and to put those beliefs into practice (the free exercise clause). Because publicly funded libraries are government agencies, confusion about religion in libraries is usually about the meaning and limits of the establishment clause. Library workers in public libraries, in public schools, and in publicly funded college or university libraries should not give the appearance of favoring any one religion or even religion in general. However, when library workers or their governing bodies avoid providing resources and services simply because of a religious connection, they have gone too far in the opposite direction. Courts have consistently held that government is not to avoid establishment so stringently that it becomes hostile to religion — a principle known as viewpoint discrimination.

This Q&A uses the definition of “religion” stated in “Religion in American Libraries: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights”:

[Religion] refers to all that touches on the infinite, a supreme deity or deities or one's understanding of the ultimate meaning or purposes of life. It includes formal organized systems of belief and practice and informal individual [spiritualities]. It also refers to adherents of older religions, newer religions, and no religion.




1. What types of religious resources may libraries acquire for their collections?

Librarians have a professional responsibility to be inclusive in collection development. Libraries serve all members of their communities and within their budgetary constraints should address all information concerns of all members of its community, including religious information needs. Collections should reflect those needs by providing access to diverse religious thought and opinion without becoming a proponent of any of them. Articles I and II of the Library Bill of Rights address audience (“all people of the community the library serves”) and resources (“all points of view on current and historical issues”) using inclusive language. For additional information, see “Diverse Collections: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights” and “Selection & Reconsideration Policy Toolkit for Public, School, and Academic Libraries.”


2. May libraries collect religious fiction?

Yes. Library workers may feel that collecting religious fiction is an endorsement or promotion of religion. However, it is not a violation of the establishment clause if the library follows the standards set forth in the library’s policies that are tailored to the community the library serves. The criteria for selection may include:

  • contemporary significance or permanent value
  • community interest and/or demand
  • artistic and literary excellence
  • cost
  • format

Religious fiction is not easily categorized despite attempts to define genres such as Christian Fiction and Inspirational Fiction. Libraries should ensure that their selections reflect a wide variety of religious perspectives. Nevertheless, excluding religious fiction would be a violation of the Library Bill of Rights: “Materials should not be excluded because of origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.” Library workers should distinguish between providing access to religious fiction and the appearance of supporting or endorsing a particular religious belief.


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

Yes, libraries may label religious resources, but some considerations are necessary. People of all persuasions and traditions have sincere and deeply felt concerns when their government—in the form of a public library—addresses religious issues. As long as the selection of resources 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.

The practice of applying specific religious symbols to resources—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 avoid entanglement with religion by using a non faith-specific label to identify “inspirational fiction,” including material that does not have religious-based content or encompasses fiction from a range of religious traditions. For additional information, see “Labeling Systems: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights and “Labeling and Rating Systems Q&A.”


4. What practical advice can be given for writing collection development policies for resources 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. (A designated or limited public forum is a place purposefully opened by the government for designated expressive activity by part of the public or all of the public.) The policy may state, for example, “the library provides free access to different points of views and ideas.” Collection development should be content-neutral so that the library reflects a diversity of ideas, including controversial points of view. Acceptance of library donations should be considered within the library’s collection development policies. For guidance on writing these policies, see “Selection & Reconsideration Policy Toolkit for Public, School, & Academic Libraries.”


5. Should libraries treat religious online content differently than other online content?

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 and online content are developed by the library, they should follow principles similar to those used in preparing guides for print collections.


Meeting Rooms


6. 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 using public facilities 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 and viewpoint neutral and address only objective use and behavior restrictions (that is, restrictions on the time, place, and manner of meeting.). Consistency is crucial: all groups should be treated the same and subject to the same rules, such as rental fees, cleaning services, frequency restrictions, noise policies, or food bans.


7. 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.


8. 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.


9. 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” question. In Faith Center Church Evangelistic Ministries v. Glover, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Contra Costa County Public Library (CA) could exclude worship services from its meeting rooms when a group self-identified its meeting as a worship service. In doing so, the Ninth Circuit cautioned that the Contra Costa library could not prohibit groups from engaging in other religious activities, including scripture 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. 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’s blog posts “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.”


10. Is it permissible to allow the singing of hymns and the performance of worship music?

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


11. What should be considered when drafting a meeting room policy?

In general, the following areas should be addressed by the library’s written meeting room policy:

  • Any restrictions on length or time of meetings
  • Frequency of using a room (e.g., no more than once a week/month)
  • Any restrictions on the number of persons permitted in a room, admission fees, the collection of donations, or whether meetings may be closed to the public ental fees for room or use of equipment
  • Any rules for catering or serving of food and beverages, as well as costs for cleaning if food or beverages are allowed
  • Noise policies, including amplified sound
  • Consequences for not following policies
  • An appeals procedure for decisions to deny use of a room, or for particular uses of a room

Above all, policies should be applied equally to all groups. For more details, see “Meeting Rooms: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights” and “Meeting Rooms Q&A.




12. May libraries provide programs with religious themes, or about religious subjects?

Yes, religion is a legitimate focus of programming insofar as it reflects the interests of the library’s community and furthers the library’s mission. The purpose of such an event should be to inform, educate, and entertain rather than to proselytize or promote one set of religious beliefs over other religious beliefs. Libraries should strive to offer programming that reflects the diversity of religious belief or non-belief in their communities and to ensure that there is no perception that the library favors one religious group over another.


13. May libraries collaborate with religious organizations in programs?

Yes. A religious organization should be held to the same standards as any other group that is allowed to participate in a program. As with its own programming, libraries should assure that the programs are informational and do not proselytize, promote, or advance particular religious beliefs or organizations.


Exhibits and Displays


14. 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. 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 “User-Initiated Exhibits, Displays, and Bulletin Boards: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.”


15. May library-initiated displays and exhibits include religious resources?

Just as libraries curate their collections to ensure representation, libraries may also highlight resources in their collections, including those with religious themes, as appropriate. The religious resources included in displays should represent the library’s community accurately while being broadly inclusive.


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

User-Initiated Exhibits, Displays, and Bulletin Boards: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights” states:

Libraries should have written policies that are content-neutral (do not pertain to the content of the display or to the identity, beliefs, or affiliations of the sponsors), clearly defined, and applied equally, and that address any time, place, and manner restrictions. Policies should be inclusive rather than exclusive. For example, a policy that the library’s space is “open to organizations engaged in educational, cultural, intellectual, or charitable activities” is an inclusive statement about the limited uses of the space.

For details, see “User-Initiated Exhibits, Displays, and Bulletin Boards: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.”


Literature Distribution


17. May 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.

Libraries are urged to consider adoption of content and viewpoint neutral policies covering the number of individual items of literature, the size and format of such items, and the length of time that items will be left out for distribution.


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 opportunities 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 users 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 users and employees bring with them into the library. Because of this context these questions primarily address community relations and employment issues, but may also have implications for intellectual and academic freedom.


A.Users’ Religious Beliefs


18. What accommodations should librarians make for religious beliefs of library users?

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 users, or access to religious websites 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.


19. What about religious dress and symbols?

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


20. What about special shelving requests for scriptures and other religious resources?

Placing specific resources 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 resources. 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 sacred texts of all religions should be treated equitably. When deaccessioning religious texts, libraries should make an effort to respect the practices of that religion regarding re-distribution or disposal of the texts, in consultation with members of that tradition.

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 resources 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).


21. How about gender considerations?

Some religious traditions have beliefs and practices that proscribe cross-gender communication and interactions. Generally, library staff members should serve all users equally regardless of gender or gender expression. If a user comes to the reference desk and expresses a desire to talk with a person of the same gender or gender expression, libraries may accommodate special requests but are not required to do so. Library users are free to seek or not seek service from any staff person they wish.


B. Employee Religious Beliefs


22. 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 “Speech in the Workplace Q&A: An Explanatory Statement of the ALA Code of Ethics.” When doing work for the library, volunteers and board members are acting as agents of the library and as such can be required to follow the same policies as employees.


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

As a general rule, employers should provide reasonable accommodation for 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 arrangements among staff (e.g., trading coverage of service points on holidays) is one approach to providing this accommodation. Libraries may also offer accommodation by adopting generally applicable leave policies that allow employees to designate one or two days as personal or floating holidays.


24. What limits may libraries place on the wearing of religious symbols by employees?

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Title VII requires an employer, once it is aware that a religious accommodation is needed, to accommodate an employee whose sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance conflicts with a work requirement, unless doing so would pose an undue hardship. Therefore, when an employer's dress and grooming policy or preference conflicts with an employee's known religious beliefs or practices, the employer must make an exception to allow the religious practice unless that would be an undue hardship on the operation of the employer's business. For example, the wearing of jewelry with religious emblems or ashes on Ash Wednesday must be allowed as a religious accommodation unless it would pose an undue hardship for the library. See Draper v. Logan County Pub. Library, 403 F. Supp. 2d 608 (W.D. Ky. 2005).

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 substantially interferes with the mission of the library. 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 message buttons, or message t-shirts).


25. 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’s “Freedom of Speech in the Workplace: The First Amendment Revisited” and Eugene Volokh’s “Freedom of Speech vs. Workplace Harassment Law—A Growing Conflict” (


26. Can libraries establish dress codes for employees?

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. 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, keeping in mind the library’s obligations under Title VII regarding religious garb and grooming.


27. Can an employee refuse to perform job duties based on their individual conscience?

Article VII of the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association states, “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.”For additional information, see “Speech in the Workplace Q&A: An Explanatory Statement of the ALA Code of Ethics.”

Federal courts have held that public institutions cannot deny service based on an employee’s religious beliefs. All public employees must respect all constitutional rights. If a public employee has a religious objection to performing a job duty, the employee must ensure that the service is provided by another employee. Private employers and religious institutions may have different rules.

There is no valid parallel between claims of individual conscience to workplace requirements and conscientious objection to military service. Enlistment or commissioning is voluntary; once in, military service is compulsory. The conscientious objector’s claim is that they cannot perform their duties in good conscience and should be released from them. If library employees claim conscientious objector status, they are free to seek other employment if unable in good conscience to continue to perform their primary responsibility of meeting the information needs of the public. For additional information on workplace accommodation and religious belief, see “What You Should Know About Workplace Religious Accommodation,” published by Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.


Created by the Intellectual Freedom Committee in 2010; revised in 2020.