Idaho library board chair demands Sunday closures to "keep the Sabbath day holy"
The conservative majority on the Community Library Network board voted to close libraries on Sundays, despite threats of litigation
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The Community Library Network in Post Falls, Idaho, on the western part of the panhandle, oversees seven buildings and a bookmobile. Its Board of Trustees, like any board, has to keep an eye on the budget.
On July 20, those Trustees held a discussion about whether it would be prudent to reduce or eliminate Sunday hours. On one hand, closing the library on Sunday would reduce one part-time position per location, saving a total of nearly $28,000. On the other hand, a lot of people use the library on Sunday. Trustees were told how often people accessed the internet, how many times the study rooms were booked, etc. They ended that discussion without taking action but requesting more information.
All of that is a perfectly routine conversation for the board of a library.
What’s unusual is that the Board’s Chair, Rachelle Ottosen, argued that the library should remain closed on Sunday because it’s the Sabbath.
Well, I know many others 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.
One board member politely chimed in to say (I’m paraphrasing) that was a batshit crazy idea. “I'm pretty sure not everybody in this community holds [to] that, so I think we need to look at the whole community concerning hours.”
Ottosen was thankfully on her own. But still, it was a ridiculous suggestion that never should have been offered from a Trustee.
Then, just five days later, Ottosen did it again. This time she came prepared with a Bible verse:
As far as closing on Sundays, most other government entities are closed on Sundays. This is not an emergency service. No one’s gonna [freak] out if they don't get a book on Sunday.
Anyway, Exodus 20:8-10 says “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, 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 well as not working ourselves.
Once again, another Trustee chimed in to shoot down that explanation: “I'm sorry, this is a government agency, and we need to be available for everyone.” Another Trustee later brought up the fact that some religions consider Sabbath day to be Saturday; Ottosen had no response to that.
She did, however, do her best David Barton impression, citing the Founding Fathers to pretend she wasn’t crossing some church/state separation barrier. She closed her comments by saying, “It's in our best interests to not dishonor God.”
Last month, Americans United for Separation of Church and State stepped in to warn the Board that it was heading down a dangerous path by listening to Ottosen’s suggestion:
The board received a letter dated Aug. 9 from the nonprofit Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which asserts that closing libraries based on Ottosen’s religious beliefs violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“Ms. Ottosen is entitled to her religious beliefs, but she is not entitled to use the power of the government to enshrine those beliefs into law and to thereby force them on her constituents,” the letter said in part. “The board has a legal obligation to refuse to act on Ms. Ottosen’s religious grounds.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has now gotten involved too.
In a letter to Ottosen, attorney Chris Line wrote that she needs to stop using her elected position to “promote your personal religious beliefs.”
While Board members are certainly free to express their religious beliefs in their private capacity outside of their role on the Board, 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. We request that members of the Board refrain from discussing their religious beliefs during meetings in order to uphold the rights of conscience embodied in our First Amendment. Please inform us in writing at your earliest convenience with an assurance that this won’t happen again in the future.
It’s such a sensible request the two groups are making here. This isn’t about whether or not the library system should close on Sundays. That’s up to the Trustees to decide. But whatever the decision is, it needs to be secular in nature. Someone’s religious beliefs shouldn’t dictate the outcome.
Everyone else on the board seems to understand that. Just not Ottosen.
Incidentally, three of the five board members—Ottosen, Tom Hanley, and Tim Plass—voted to close the libraries on Sundays, but after the board’s attorney mentioned that this could open the door to litigation, the same board then voted 4-1 to table the Sunday closures… even though they had already voted to close them.
The same conservative trifecta took over the board earlier this summer after running on a campaign promoting censorship and keeping books they deemed explicit out of the hands of kids.
Hanley and Plass campaigned on keeping explicit books out of children and teen sections…
Ottosen has been vocal against LGBTQ programs and books for children. She also testified to the Idaho Legislature in support of recent obscenity bills targeting libraries and librarians.
Last month, the three of them also suggested disaffiliating from the American Library Association, calling it “ultra liberal” and criticizing it for opposing censorship. “The ALA has a clear animosity and resentment toward the family and traditional religious values,” Hanley said during an August meeting.
All of that’s to say the move to shut down the libraries on Sundays because some Christians take Sabbath day seriously isn’t just one crazy board member’s wacky suggestion. It’s part of a larger plan to inject Christian Nationalism into a public library system no matter how much that harms people in the community.
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