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Library access

1/25/2012

When the Hays Public Library turns down a request from a veteran wanting to present a class on the U.S. Constitution, there must be more to the story than meets the eye. After all, what could be more appropriate for a public gathering place than a good old-fashioned civics lesson? It wouldn't appear there should be any misgivings about celebrating patriotism, even if it is an eight-hour session.

Yet Roger Ewing, the organizer for the Big First tea party, was told he could not present a video titled "The Making of America" at the library on Presidents' Day next month. Executive Director Eric Norris told Ewing the library did not allow political organizations to use the public meeting room.

Ewing claims the class is not political in nature, calling it a "straightforward, educational program to teach the public."

David Dunn, president of the library's board of directors, is not convinced.

"Even though they say what they were wanting to do was to teach the Constitution, it's done by a political party, and anytime a political party does something, they put their spin on it," Dunn said.

And so, a standoff. The library board plans to craft a more detailed policy about who can use the public space. Ewing's plight has caught the attention of lawmakers in Topeka and is making the rounds of conservative websites and email blasts.

But is the correct issue even being debated? We would argue "The Making of America" has more to do with religion than it does politics. The video was produced by the National Center for Constitutional Studies, which unabashedly believes "that America and its Constitution were established by the hand of God; and thus we advocate morality and religious principles as the essential foundation of human happiness and freedom."

Seen in this light, it would appear the library already has a policy that applies: "The Visual and Performing Arts Gallery may be used for single events by nonprofit organizations. Due to Constitutional provisions regarding the separation of Church and State, the Library cannot furnish rooms for religious purposes."

We believe Ewing's request was rejected appropriately, just not for the correct reason.

Case closed, right? Not quite. Perhaps showing a video that puts God's hand on the Constitution is no more or less a religious get-together than showing a film about "What it Means to be Muslim in Today's World," which has been shown as part of the Feed and Films series. Or even having then-Mayor Kent Steward speaking about "Religion in Public Life," which happened at the library a few years ago.

If patrons aren't to be discriminated against because of either political views or religion, yet can be denied access for a political event or religious purpose, that's a might fine line to expect library staff to uphold.

Opening the public space to the entire spectrum of ideas would seem a logical solution, although Hays made it clear with the Internet filter issue a few years ago that limits are desired to uphold community decency standards at the library. Replace the tea party with about any organization you wouldn't want meeting at the public library and it's plain to see why a free-for-all might not be practical. We won't even name any such hypothetical organization so there is no inadvertent linkage with the tea party.

The library board has its work cut out as it revisits the policy manual. Removing ambiguity should be a primary goal.

Similarly, individuals and groups approaching the library should be unambiguous about their intentions. A discussion about the U.S. Constitution is quite different in our minds than a discussion about God's role in establishing it.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net