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'God Bless America' sign restored to Constitution Week display at NC library

Library changes course after receiving Alliance Defending Freedom letter

Wednesday, Oct 9, 2013

Attorney sound bite:  Travis Barham  |  Kevin Theriot

FAIRVIEW, N.C. — A North Carolina library has agreed to return a “God Bless America” sign to a community group’s Constitution Week display after officials first removed the sign without notice. Alliance Defending Freedom sent Fairview Library officials a letter on Sept. 26 to explain that they violated the U.S. Constitution when they censored the sign, which ironically was part of a display celebrating the Constitution.

“Respecting free speech is always the right thing to do, so we commend the library for quickly correcting this constitutional violation by restoring the sign,” said Litigation Staff Counsel Travis Barham. “For decades, the First Amendment has prohibited public officials from singling out religious expression and quarantining it from public view. The library’s patrons were not just celebrating the Constitution; they were exercising the very freedoms that it protects. Library officials have done the right thing by deciding to respect the freedom of Americans to celebrate publicly our nation’s religious heritage.”

Last month, a private organization set up a Constitution Week display in Fairview Library’s entryway display case, which the library allows community groups to reserve on a first-come, first-serve basis. The display featured a variety of patriotic materials, including American flags, Betsy Ross flags, and a “God Bless America” sign. The library maintains no written policies governing the content of what community members may display in the case.

A few days later, a library official removed the sign from the display. The official claimed the sign could not be displayed because someone might complain about it, even though the library had received no complaints.

“Even if someone had complained, the essence of free speech is the right to say things that others would rather not hear,” Barham said. He explained that removing the sign because the message is religious was unconstitutional, especially since the library allowed non-religious patriotic messages to remain on display. Allowing the sign to remain poses no problems because, as the Alliance Defending Freedom letter stated, “the Supreme Court has…ruled at least seven times in the last thirty-two years that the government does not violate the Establishment Clause when it allows religious speakers equal access to a forum for private speech.”

In a letter dated Oct. 3, Buncombe County Legal Services responded, saying that “in light of existing case law,” the director of libraries “will contact a representative of your client and invite her to return the sign to the Fairview Library display.”

“Public officials simply don’t have the constitutional authority to single out religious content based on concerns about how people might react,” added Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot. “The First Amendment exists specifically to protect speech regardless of whether it is popular. Returning the sign was clearly the right thing to do, and we commend the library for doing it.”

Deborah J. Dewart, one of nearly 2,300 allied attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom, is serving as local counsel in the matter.
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
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Photo: Constitution Week display at Fairview Library

Photo: “God Bless America” sign in Constitution Week display at Fairview Library

ABOUT Travis C. Barham

Travis C. Barham serves as senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, where he plays a key role with the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. He focuses his legal efforts on preserving and reclaiming religious freedom, freedom of speech, and freedom of association for students and faculty at universities throughout the country. His work has been instrumental in securing several strategic appellate court victories, including a public university free speech victory at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2021. Barham earned his Juris Doctor from Washington and Lee University School of Law in 2006, where he graduated summa cum laude. Barham is a member of the bars of Georgia and Arizona. He is also admitted to practice before multiple federal district and appellate courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.

ABOUT Kevin Theriot

Kevin Theriot serves as senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, where he is a key member of the Center for Life Team working to defend pro-life laws and speech and protect medical rights of conscience. He has litigated cases in the areas of religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family. Theriot is admitted to the bar in eight states, the U.S. Supreme Court, and numerous other federal courts of appeal and district courts. Theriot received his law degree from Vanderbilt University and has been litigating First Amendment issues since 1993.