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Nanette Perez (staff)'s picture

Religion in American Libraries: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights

New Draft of an Interpretation to the Library Bill of Rights.

Religion in American Libraries: An Interpretation of the

Library Bill of Rights


The courts have consistently held that for the freedom of the press and speech guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution to be fully meaningful, people must also have the right to receive information: that is, to read, view, hear or access what they choose, without any limitations imposed by the government. In addition, the First Amendment guarantees the right of individuals to believe and practice their religion or practice no religion at all (the “free exercise” clause) and prohibits government from establishing or endorsing a religion or religions (the “establishment” clause).  Thus the freedom of, for and from religion, are similarly guaranteed by the Constitution.


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 potentially infringe on the rights of other persons to access constitutionally protected speech rather than limiting the challenger’s own beliefs or the practice of his or her own religion.


For the purpose of this interpretation “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.  While this interpretation is most clearly applicable to public libraries, it should in most cases also be appropriate for school and academic libraries. Private libraries, especially those associated with religious institutions, should apply these guidelines as appropriate in light of their institutional mission.


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 needs of all members—including their 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”). This includes both fiction and non-fiction materials regardless of format.


Collection development and materials selection should be done according to standards set forth in library policy that incorporates professional standards established in the Library Bill of Rights and Code of Ethics of the American Library Association and that are tailored to the community that the library serves. These may include but are not limited to contemporary significance or permanent value, community interest and/or demand, artistic and literary excellence, cost and format.  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, it may state that the library provides unfettered access to different points of views and ideas. Above all, collection development should be content-neutral, assuring that the library reflects a diversity of ideas including controversial or unorthodox points of view.


The selection, shelving and labeling of religious fiction are particularly sensitive. 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." Librarians should distinguish between providing access to religious fiction and the appearance of supporting or endorsing a particular religious point of view, especially if contemplating the use of religious symbols in labeling[1].  Religious content is no more or less protected than any other type of speech.  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.   For additional details, see "Labeling Systems:  An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights" and the topic "Genres" in "Questions and Answers on Labeling and Ratings Systems."



Library policy should be applied equally to shelving of religious books, to storage or display of religious objects, or to access to religious Web sites as they would be to any other shelving, storage, display, or Web access.  Privileging one religious tradition over others could violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.  Placing specific materials 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 could be a violation of the Library Bill of Rights to give special treatment to a specific sacred text or object or to limit access to such a text or object. On the other hand, it is appropriate to add additional titles or versions of a text or objects 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 respectfully and equitably.

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).

Regarding meeting rooms, 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.  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 use by the community for the exchange of information.  Given that no court has ever ruled that a library must exclude religious groups, the safest course of action is to provide the same access and apply the same rules of use to all community groups.  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. For additional details, see “Meeting Rooms: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.”


With regard to displays, 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 “Exhibit Spaces and Bulletin Boards: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.”


If a library provides space for community groups to distribute literature to the public, religious groups should be allowed to do so on an equitable basis with all groups that use the distribution  space, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups distributing 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.


The religious views that patrons and employees bring with them into the library are more community relations and employment issues rather than intellectual freedom issues and are addressed in the Intellectual Freedom Committee’s “Religion in American Libraries: Questions and Answers.”



Precisely because religion is such a sensitive and sometimes controversial concern of library users, it should be accorded the full protections promised to its myriad forms by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights.




[1] See Labeling Systems:  An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights and "Genres" under Questions and Answers on Labeling and Ratings Systems

Doug Archer's picture


This document is the first public draft of a new interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.  It has been prepared by a small working group of the Intellectual Freedom Committee and approved by the committee for wide spread distribution and comment.  Please make your suggestions, comments and reactions right here in Connect -- by May 15.  

The IFC will then revise the document in light of your responses and share a new draft for discussion during Annual Conference in Orlando.  The committee's plan is to make further revisions next fall and, if possible, bring it to Council for consideration at Midwiter.

Thanks very much for sharing your opinions with us.

Doug Archer, IFC member


J. Douglas Archer Reference & Peace Studies Librarian 246 Hesburgh Library University of Notre Dame Notre Dame, IN 46556 574-631-6656 voice | 574-631-8887 fax archer.1@nd.edu | www.nd.edu/~jarcher

Susan Pieper's picture

Hello Mr. Archer and Committee:

After a brief reading and review of this draft statement of the Religion in American Libraries portion of the Library Bill of Rights, I find it is clear, fair and exhibits a common sense in its approach. For those who may remember me, I am a past councilor-at-large 2007-2010 that ran on a platform of an evangelical Christian, believing that the voice of the conservative librarians should be heard on the governing level of ALA. Therefore, I welcome any attention given to the placement of religious materials, displays, etc. in public libraries.

The demographics of our library's rural community and service area is predominantly Christian and/or conservative. Although our collection reflects the values and standards of our community, and may seem to lean a bit to the "right", we are balanced because we are dedicated to providing shelf space (placed in Dewey classification order) of materials addressing a variety of formal "known" religions, cults and other belief systems.

A library serving a more conservative community must take extra care in collection development actions to acquire authoritative items reflecting opposite views or alternative views of what is defined under this draft statement as a "religion".  Otherwise, we would show bias towards one religion over another. Shelf space is limited, so a strong comprehensive collection is not possible, however we make available via Inter-Library Loan materials from other libraries that may fill requests.

So, well done to this small group of individuals who have drafted this first look. I commend you for your balanced and common sense approach. I look forward to seeing the final draft, hoping it retains the spirit of all-inclusiveness as does this first draft.

Best to you,

Susan Hill Pieper


Susan Hill Pieper Director
Paulding County Carnegie Library
205 S. Main Street 
Paulding, Ohio 45879 

Daniel Cornwall's picture

Wanted to add my thanks for what reads to be a very balanced document that appears to be fair to all faiths and to non-deists as well. I have no suggestions at this time. I will forward the draft to my state membership. - Daniel Cornwall, Alaska Chapter Councilor

Daniel Cornwall

Alaska Chapter Councilor

Member, Depository Library Council


Paula Laurita's picture

Kudos to the committee for drafting a well written statement. You've covered many areas well and clearly.