Court rejects challenge to use of churches as polling places

Monday, August 6, 2007

A federal judge in Florida has found that having a polling place at a Catholic church does not violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks on July 30 rejected a challenge brought by Delray Beach resident Jerry Rabinowitz against Palm Beach County's practice of using houses of worship as polling places. Rabinowitz’s lawsuit stated that allowing churches to serve as such was a government endorsement of religion.

Rabinowitz has voted at Emmanuel Catholic Church since March 2001. On Election Day in 2006, he observed a pro-life banner located more than 100 feet from the entrance to the church, and he noticed religious icons, texts and photographs inside the building. Although Rabinowitz said he had not filed an objection previously, he told the court that he felt uncomfortable each time he voted at the church. He said that by using polling places where these items are present, the supervisor of elections endorsed the Catholic faith.

While Supervisor of Elections Arthur Anderson currently designates approximately 100 houses of worship as polling places in Palm Beach County, the churches and synagogues must sign the same “Polling Location Agreement” as all other voting facilities. Anderson said in court documents that houses of worship are appropriate for use during elections because they typically “have adequate parking, are designed to hold large numbers of persons and are normally accessible to elderly and handicapped persons.”

“Rather than having a religious purpose or effect, the placement of a polling precinct at the Church had the primary effect of facilitating a secular election,” Judge Middlebrooks wrote in Rabinowitz v. Anderson.

Additionally, Middlebrooks noted that Anderson and Palm Beach County did not place the religious materials inside the polling places, and Rabinowitz acknowledged to the court that he knew such displays are privately chosen by the churches themselves.

“All the religious symbols and messages present in the Church were the private speech of that particular house of worship, and the Plaintiff himself understood this undisputed fact,” Middlebrooks wrote. “While Plaintiff may feel discomfort when viewing the religious symbols at the Church, that feeling of discomfort does not equate to a Constitutional violation in the absence of credible evidence.”

The New York Sun reported Aug. 1 that the American Humanist Association, which backed Rabinowitz’s challenge, was considering appealing the decision. The group also said it would consider filing similar lawsuits against counties where churches are used as polling places.

“Such a religiously charged environment can serve to intimidate or unduly influence a person’s vote,” AHA President Mel Lipman was quoted as saying in the article.

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