Anita Staver makes her living suing in Jesus’ name.
She’s president of the Orlando, Florida-based Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit that for the last quarter-century has taken on the mantle of God’s law firm in the culture war, fighting various legal battles related to abortion and gay rights.
Staver’s outfit has also championed its notion of religious freedom, filing and threatening lawsuits over, for instance, a school that wouldn’t let a Bible club distribute candy canes affixed with religious messages and a professor alleged to be cramming secularism down his students’ throats.
This has made the Liberty Counsel something of a cause célèbre to the religious right, and its founder, Mathew Staver, Anita’s husband and the Liberty Counsel’s chairman, a movement rock star. Between 2003 and 2014, its revenue tripled, from $1.4 million to more than $4.2 million, almost all of it in donations from supporters.
Now the Liberty Counsel is turning its attention to the Wake County Public Library.
Late last month, Anita Staver sued the county, claiming that its library’s conference-room policy unconstitutionally infringes on the First Amendment. That’s not unusual. This is: Free-speech advocatesincluding the Liberty Counsel’s archnemeses at Americans United for Separation of Church and Statesay the religious group has a point.
The saga began on March 11, 2013, when Anita Staver sent a request to the Cameron Village Library, asking to reserve a conference room for an “educational program promoting a Christian view of the founding of America.”
The library makes the room available for free to all sorts of organizations for “cultural, civic and informational educational purposes,” according to the policy: book clubs, a yoga group, a screenwriting class, a couponing class. At the same time, it prohibits “partisan political meetings and religious instruction, services or ceremonies.”
Staver told library representative Susan Lane in an email that she wanted to host “an educational program on the foundations of America from a Christian perspective. So, we will be quoting extensively from the Bible, the founding fathers’ religious views, and sermons from the founding era.”
She asked if her presentation would be permitted under the library’s policy.
“Since you are telling me your program includes religious instruction,” Lane replied, according to court records, “then no, you would not be able to use our rooms according to our guidelines.”
“We don’t agree with the Liberty Counsel
on too many matters, but the law here is
on too many matters, but the law here is
A year-and-a-half later, in November 2014, Staver tried again, with the same result. Last month, she sued.
The lawsuit argues that because the library would have allowed a secular group to give a presentation on the country’s founding, but not a religious group to do the same, the policy constitutes viewpoint discrimination, which the Supreme Court decades ago ruled unconstitutional.
“The policy has to be very carefully done,” says Charles C. Haynes, executive director of the Newseum’s Religious Freedom Center in Washington, D.C., and a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center. “It has to be very clear that it’s being fair and neutral to survive a test in court.”
Few, if any, such policies meet that threshold, says Mathew Staver. The Liberty Counsel has brought about 10 lawsuits over these types of policies, he says. “None of those policies have ever been upheld.” Many more local governments reversed course before being taken to court.
The law, as it turns out, appears pretty clear-cut.
Haynes references a Supreme Court case from 1993, Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District, in which the court unanimously ruled that the New York school district’s regulationwhich allowed non-religious groups to use its facilities after hours, but denied an evangelical church that wanted to show a film series of family-values lectures by Focus on the Family founder James Dobsonwas unconstitutional.
“I think the library’s going to have a very difficult time winning this case,” says Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “We don’t agree with the Liberty Counsel on too many matters, but the law here is so clear.”
Citing the pending litigation, county attorney Scott Warren declined to comment. He did tell the INDY in an email that this is the first complaint the county has received regarding its conference-room policy, which has been in place since 2009.
“We are looking at the library use policy, however, and will make changes to it if needed,” he wrote. “We are working through that now.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “When the right is right”