Government libraries can block religious groups from worshipping in public meeting rooms, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

The decision came from a case involving the Faith Center Church Evangelistic Ministries, a Christian group which won a court order allowing them to hold a "prayer, praise and worship" service in meeting rooms open to other groups at a Contra Costa County library branch. A federal judge said it had a First Amendment right of religion to use the public's facilities.

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But a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling in a 2-1 decision.

"Prohibiting Faith Center's religious worship services from the Antioch meeting room is a permissible exclusion of a category of speech," Judge Richard Paez ruled.

The Alliance Defense Fund, which is defending the church group, called the decision "astounding." The group, he said, would consider appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court or asking the appeals court to reconsider.

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"Religious people ... whether they're Jewish, Muslim or Christian or any other faith under the sun, this is not what the First Amendment was intended to do, to authorize censorship of speech in public," said Gary McCaleb, an ADF attorney.

The county's policy allows the public to use free meeting rooms at its libraries, but prohibits "religious services." Groups such as the Sierra Club, Narcotics Anonymous and the East Contra Costa Democratic Club have used the county's library facilities.

Contra Costa County had appealed the lower court's decision, arguing that religious groups have a right of free access to its public library facilities in the Bay Area, but allowing prayer services would mean taxpayers would be subsidizing religious exercises.

"Religious worship services is a category of speech that we are allowed to exclude," said Kelly Flanagan, a county attorney. "Had we said Christians can use this but Jews can't, that would be discrimination."

In December, the Bush administration weighed in on the case, filing a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the church. The administration said the government "has an interest in enforcement of First Amendment principles providing equal treatment of persons irrespective of their religious beliefs."

In dissent, Judge Richard Tallman said the county went too far.

"Rather than adopting a policy of neutrality and placing reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on every group that uses the library meeting rooms, the county has gone to great lengths to exclude a non-disruptive community group based on the views it wishes to express," Tallman wrote.