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Idaho library board chair can’t impose religion, FFRF contends

Screenshot 2023 09 12 at 9.43.19 AM

Update: In August, the board not only passed a motion to close libraries Sundays beginning in September, but is also considering disaffiliating from the American Library Association because the ALA supposedly has “a clear animosity and resentment toward the family and traditional religious values.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is pushing back against the attempts of a northern Idaho public library network board chair to change policies in accordance with her religion.

 A concerned community member has informed the state/church watchdog that Community Library Network Board of Trustees Chair Rachelle Ottosen has been using her position to demand the closing of some libraries on Sundays for “the observance of Sabbath.” (The board is headquartered in Post Falls and oversees the functioning of eight libraries.) At a July 20 meeting during a discussion about shutting down libraries on Sunday, she said: “I know many at these tables don’t subscribe to this, but the Lord blesses people who keep the Sabbath Day holy. I think having people work on Sunday is actually to our detriment.”

At the next meeting, on July 25, she quoted a bible verse in justification:

Exodus 20:8-10 says “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates.” … So it sounds like we shouldn’t be causing other people to work as long as we’re not working ourselves.

When another board member rebuked Ottosen for quoting from the bible, Ottosen cited the nation’s Founders, claiming that they would support her perspective. She ended by stating it was in the board’s best interest to “not dishonor God.”

Board members as public officials cannot be allowed to commandeer the board in order to impose their personal religious beliefs on the community or fellow board members by reading bible passages and suggesting the board must follow biblical edicts, FFRF emphasizes.

“Our Constitution’s Establishment Clause — which protects Americans’ religious freedom by ensuring the continued separation of religion and government — dictates that the government cannot in any way show favoritism toward religion,” FFRF Attorney Chris Line writes to Ottosen. “As the Supreme Court has put it, ‘The First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.’”

The Community Library Network Board of Trustees represents a diverse population that consists not only of Christians, but also minority religious and nonreligious community members. Reading bible passages at meetings and suggesting that everyone must follow a particular religion’s rules is not only unconstitutional, but sends a message that excludes those who are among the 37 percent of Americans who are non-Christians, including the nearly one in three adult Americans (29 percent) who are religiously unaffiliated.

Ottosen must cease using her position to promote her personal religious beliefs, FFRF is insisting. While board members are certainly free to express their religious beliefs in their private capacity, it is unconstitutional for public officials to push their personal religious beliefs during public meetings and to adopt policies based on those beliefs with no secular justification.

“It’s ironic that Ms. Ottosen claimed the Framers of our Constitution would support closure of public libraries on Sundays, when in fact they adopted a godless and entirely secular Constitution that explicitly wrote religion out of government,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

You can read the full FFRF letter here.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 40,000 members across the country, including members in Idaho. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

If you are an FFRF member, sign into your account here and then update your email subscriptions here.

To become an FFRF member, click here. To learn more about FFRF, request information here.

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