After protest, Leander Library halts all room rentals pending policy review

Small Leander church finds itself searching for a new home due to change in policy


Editor's note: An update related to this story has been published on July 10, 2019: Leander Public Library abruptly cancels appearance of popular comic author

In the wake of a highly-publicized pride festival held by an LGBTQ-friendly church that brought protestors and national media attention, the Leander Public Library will no longer rent its conference room to the public. 

The decision comes on the heels of a June 15 event when Open Cathedral Church stepped in to resurrect a planned Drag Queen Story Time event that was cancelled after a social media stir and calls to the library and members of the city council. The church rented a room in accordance with a 2018 decision by the Leander City Council to allow the library’s community room to be rented by churches and political organizations and then morphed the drag queen event into an LGBTQ-friendly story time event with three local mothers reading to attending children and families. 

The change in format wasn’t enough to stop protestors from around the state and country from focusing on the event, as the city reports nearly 300 people showed up that Saturday, either in support of or against the event. 

The library was closed to the public and the city had a large police presence during the event out of public safety concerns. 

Now, the library has decided to temporarily halt future rentals of the its community room.

Leander Public Information Officer Michael Neu said the policy change is not indefinite. 

Neu said the library is only halting new rentals until city and library staff can complete a review of the library’s rental program and present their findings to the city council. 

However, Neu said the city doesn’t expect to be able to complete that review and make a presentation to the council for at least a month.

“The event created a unique circumstance for the city, which prompted our review,” Neu said. “We want to ensure we’re able to accommodate any future meetings or events hosted in a city facility, as well as set appropriate expectations of ourselves and the public.”

Neu said the Leander Parks and Recreation Department is leading the review, in collaboration with library staff, the police department and other city officials that made the original decision to cancel the Drag Queen Story Hour pending a library program review and the decision to close the library during the event for public safety.

Parkways Baptist Church, which wasn’t involved in the story time or pride festival event but rents a room in the library to hold its services, is already being impacted by the policy decision.

Neu said the review of the rental program will consider “what works or doesn’t work in the policy,” along with where the policy is inconsistent with other policies, how it compares to other cities’ policies, and possible options available to the council when it deliberates on whether to change or keep the existing rental policy.

The presentation will also include the final cost analysis of how much the city spent policing the June 15 protest along with other logistical data from the event.

Neu said while the city is aware that any recommended policy changes may negatively affect future rentals, it was important to include all possible options as part of the review.

Not counting rentals by city staff, the library approved four conference room rental agreements for events in June, three agreements for events in May and three agreements for events in April. 

The city has received two inquiries about reserving for events in July, according to Neu, and library staff has offered he Mason Homestead operated by the Parks and Recreation Department as a possible alternative location.

Church looking for new home after policy change

Amidst the policy change, a small Leander church has found itself unexpectedly looking for a new home.

Pathway Baptist Church, which started in Leander about a year and a half ago, originally rented rooms from the school district to host their services, but the church’s pastor said the rental rate was too cost prohibitive for their congregation of about 20 people. 

Pastor Rob Lederman said they switched to renting a library conference room in late May, holding Wednesday and Sunday services in the room throughout June.

Lederman said the library only charges about $15 per day, which adds up to $120 per month for the church’s needs. He said that’s just a fraction of the cost of other venues. He also said the library conference room also provides ideal amenities for their services.

Since the change in library policy prevented them for renting the room for July, the church has moved into to the Mason Homestead until a decision is made on the policy.

Lederman said is very thankful for Leander Parks and Recreation Director Mark Tummons and the library staff for helping his church find the alternative location, and he said city staff has been very informative and accommodating about the situation.

However, he said they will likely only be able to afford to rent the room in Mason Homestead for July before having to find another location since it costs them approximately $900 per month.

Lederman said the church is just waiting on the council’s decision before taking its next step, particularly because the church wants to see whether the council will continue to allow library rooms to be rented by religious organizations in the future.

Originally, the Leander Public Library did not rent rooms to political or religious organizations. However, the previous council voted unanimously voted to modify the policy and allow these organizations to rent the rooms a meeting in February 2018. Council Member Michelle Stephenson and Mayor Troy Hill were among those voting to allow rentals to religious and political groups, though Hill was a member of council at the time. He was elected mayor later that year.

Lederman said the congregation formed Pathway because they all knew each other and wanted to form their own church together. He said they put a heavy emphasis on outreach, particularly with organizing charitable events. 

He said his church doesn’t have any issue with a drag queen story time. In fact, they held a prayer vigil in Mason Homestead on the day of the protest to pray for peace and calm for both sides and the safety of the police officers working the event.

“We would have prayed for anyone from either side of that fence that walked in. That’s the kind of church we are, that’s who we are,” Lederman said.