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Chelmsford Public Library reinstates ‘pastor story hour’ after church claims rights were violated

The Chelmsford Public Library has reinstated a pastor’s story hour that was planned for Friday morning but abruptly canceled Thursday afternoon after library officials said the church that organized the event misrepresented its plans.

A lawyer for The Shepherd’s Church had claimed the library bowed to public pressure after it became known that the event was planned in response to drag queen story hours.

Late Thursday night, the library notified the church that the event would go on as planned, the lawyer said in an e-mail. Library officials announced the reversal in a Facebook post at 7:19 a.m. Friday.

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“After receiving advice from legal counsel, the meeting room reservation for a ‘Pastor Story Hour’ has been reinstated at its original time of 11 a.m. on Friday, January 13, 2023 in the McCarthy Meeting Room at the Chelmsford Public Library,” the post said. “The Library does not support or endorse this event and is not a sponsor or co-sponsor.”

Kendall Lankford, teaching pastor of The Shepherd’s Church, had been scheduled to read to children at 11 a.m., but library officials said Thursday afternoon that they had canceled the event “based on violations of the library’s meeting room and acceptable behavior policies,” according to a statement.

Lankford declined to be interviewed Thursday evening.

A blog post on the church’s website shows that he planned the event in response to drag queen story hours, which have been targeted by some on the far right who claim that members of the LGBTQ+ community use such events to recruit children.

The founder of a neo-Nazi group was arrested in Jamaica Plain last summer as he led a protest outside a drag queen story hour, and last month dozens of masked protesters disrupted a drag story hour at the Fall River Public Library,the Globe reported.

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Facebook posts advertising Lankford’s story hour include images of two books: “God Made Boys and Girls: Helping Children Understand the Gift of Gender,” and “Jesus and My Gender.”

Lesley Kimball, acting co-director of the Chelmsford Public Library, said Thursday evening that the event was canceled after library officials became aware that the church had publicized it in different terms than it had used when making the reservation, terms that appeared to violate library policies.

Kimball declined to comment further.

In a statement posted to Facebook, which has since been taken down, library officials said that their “policies state that no proselytizing is allowed in the library.”

“In addition, publicity may only list the library as the meeting site; co-sponsorship with the library may not be indicated without prior agreement. The Shepherd’s Church’s publicity violates both of these provisions as evidenced by library and public perception,” the statement said. “The Library is pausing public meeting room use (excepting the small study rooms) until further notice in order to review policies.”

A lawyer for the conservative Massachusetts Family Institute sent a letter to the library Thursday challenging the library officials’ assertions.

“First, your interpretation of the library’s prohibition on proselytizing is demonstrably incorrect, to the point that your reliance on that policy can only be seen as a pretext for anti-religious discrimination,” Andrew Beckwith, president and general counsel of the institute wrote in the letter.

“The clear purpose of the policy is to prevent a patron from proselytizing to other patrons in a way that is disruptive,” he said. “There is no basis to believe that Mr. Lankford holding an event in a closed room, physically separated from patrons who do not want to hear his message, could be disruptive to other patrons.”

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Beckwith also argued that there “is simply no evidence that Mr. Lankford ever indicated co-sponsorship with the library.”

“At most, his publicity for the event indicates that the library allowed him to use its meeting room, just as the rest of the community is allowed to use your community room, per the library’s own policy and as obligated under state and federal law,” he wrote.

The letter demanded that the library reinstate Lankford’s reservation, delete any announcement of its cancelation, and publicly announce on Facebook that the reading hour will be held as scheduled.

On Friday morning, Beckwith said the library had agreed to his demands.

“While we are pleased that the Pastor Story Hour will be able to go forward as planned this morning, the fact remains that in America a pastor shouldn’t need a lawyer to use the library,” he said in an e-mail.


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him @jeremycfox.