December 29, 2008

Patron Who Complained About Indiana Library Nativity Faces Retaliation

Giuseppe Arcimboldo: The Librarian First uploa...Image via WikipediaWhen I posted about the Elwood Public Library in Indiana choosing to ignore a complaint from a patron about their nativity scene, I never dreamed I would need to address the situation again. After all, I frequently post stories involving Christians failing to grasp the fact that America is a secular democracy where separation of church and state is the law. I figured that this was just another example of the sort of things with which we atheists are always dealing. Boy, was I wrong! I've been contacted by the library patron who made the complaint, and his story must be told.

Tyson e-mailed me after learning of my previous post. Here is what he had to say:
I am the Elwood Public Library patron who complained about the nativity scene. I need help here – these people do not think the law applies to them. Please share this information with your readers. There is now a witch hunt against me, and I am seriously fearful of someone hurting me and my family. Please take a look at this link: If you notice the signing of the name, this is a library employee that started this. If you read the comments, you will see what I am dealing with here. This is the PG version of what people are saying about me. There are other sites that people are posting to that you must have a membership to view, which are definitely rated R.
The remarkable thing about this lengthy and publicly available thread of opinions is that it was started by an employee of the library! Just imagine that for a second. You encounter something which you suspect may be a violation of the law, and you bring it to the attention of someone in authority at the institution. Then you discover that you have been rudely insulted in a public forum by an employee of the institution.

I know it is long, but take some time to read through the thread and see what Tyson is dealing with here. As you read, keep in mind that all of this is happening because he dared to complain about a nativity scene in a public library supported with tax dollars.

So what exactly happened here? How did Tyson complain, and what is his version of the events which transpired? What follows is a comprehensive description provided by Tyson in a letter he wrote to the library board. I have not edited it in any way except to remove the name of the subject of the complaint.
Dear Library Board:

During my visit to the Elwood Public Library on Friday, December 19, 2008, I noticed the library’s nativity scene on display in one of the showcases. Being a professional librarian with an MLS, I was curious as to why the library’s director would permit such a display in a public library. To get an answer to my inquiry, I decided to discuss the appropriateness of the display with the library’s director. I did not approach the director with the intent of demanding the display be taken down; I simply wanted to engage in discourse with her. I began our discussion by asking her if she thought it was appropriate for a public library to have a nativity scene on display. She then told me that the library has had the scene on display for the last 29 years and that the library had not received any complaints. I then told her I was there to complain. Unlike what The Call-Leader reported on Monday, December 22, 2008, I did not mention the words offended or atheist. However, the library director reported to The Call-Leader that I did use these words. I do not know why she chose to falsely report to the media what was actually said in her office, but in doing so, she has caused me and my family a great deal of grief.

I will explain here what actually took place in the director’s office. After telling her I was there to complain, the library director responded by saying she was tired of me coming into her library and complaining. Since I have never complained to the director before, I was shocked to hear her say this. She continued her unprofessional rant by accusing me of mistreating her staff and abusing the library’s services. I reminded ____ that I am a professional librarian who is committed to library service; therefore, I would never abuse the library or its staff. Additionally, I informed her that her accusation of staff mistreatment was based on misinformation. I explained to her the truth of what had actually happened regarding the particular situation she was referring to, but instead of listening to me, the director continued to argue. Since I felt the director was very upset, I explained to her that I was not going to argue with her. She responded by telling me that if I am unhappy with the library’s services, maybe I should not visit the library. I then held up the movie I had just checked out and explained to her that I was just looking for some entertainment. Furthermore, I asked for the library board president’s contact information, I encouraged her to speak with the library board about my inquiry, and I informed her that if the display was not taken down by the following Monday, I would pursue further action. I did not enter the director’s office with the intent of demanding the display be taken down. My professional experience as a librarian causes me to question the legality of displaying a nativity scene within a public library, which is why I wanted to discuss the issue with a fellow professional. It was in response to the director’s unprofessionalism and unwillingness to engage in professional discourse that I demanded the display be removed.

I immediately contacted the board president to complain about the director’s unprofessionalism, but since he was unavailable, I was only able to leave a message. The board president did not return my call. I tried to contact him again on Tuesday, December 23, 2008, but I was again unsuccessful. I finally was able to reach the board president on Wednesday, December 24, 2008. He informed me that he did not have time to take my complaint and that he would speak to me at an undetermined future date. Since I have been unsuccessful at getting the board president to listen to me, I decided to write this letter to all board members.

I am requesting the library board terminate ________ from her position as library director immediately. Not only do I make this request based on the unprofessionalism she demonstrated in her office, I also think she should be terminated for lying to the press about the conversation that took place in her office. I never used the words offended or atheist, but she obviously felt it was appropriate to go to the press and make this false accusation. Furthermore, I have been contacted by the Herald Bulletin for an interview about the native scene. The discussion about the nativity scene took place between ____ and I behind closed doors. I cannot figure out how the Herald Bulletin learned of my name or my phone number for that matter unless the library or its board members revealed this information. As a result of ____’s lie about what was said in her office and the revealing of my name, my mother has received phone calls from family members questioning if what was said is true. Her false reporting to the press has not only been a burden on me, it has been a burden on my family as well. For these reasons, I think ________ should be terminated as the North Madison County Pubic Library System Director immediately.
As bad as this all seems, it got worse - much worse. Tyson reports that an employee of the library made his library record public in a blog post. Not only is this highly inappropriate, but it is a crime under Indiana law. Tyson is now asking the library board to dismiss the library's director.

I am not sure how we can best help Tyson. I welcome suggests in the comments thread. How would you advise him to handle the situation from this point on? It seems to be that publicity is one way we can help. We can use our blogs and our votes on the various social networking sites to spread the word about what is happening in this small Indiana town. We can contact the library board ourselves. Their attention could be brought to two interrelated issues: (1) nativity scenes do not belong in public libraries (they claim Tyson was the first to complain in 29 years; we can make sure he won't be the last), and (2) the sort of retaliation Tyson has experienced is unacceptable and should be punished. I suspect that writing to the board about either or both of these issues might get their attention.

Update: The Associated Press has picked up the library's version of this story, naturally omitting Tyson's account completely (here is one exception). Several major media outlets in Indiana are now running with the incomplete version. If Tyson's side is going to be told, it is up to us to tell it.