Thursday, November 30, 2006
At its official launch in Washington DC yesterday, the Appignani Humanist Legal Center (AHLC) announced its filing of a lawsuit in Florida challenging the use of a church as a polling place during the recent U.S. midterm elections. The AHLC is representing Jerry Rabinowitz and the action is against Arthur Anderson in his capacity as supervisor of elections for Palm Beach County. But the organization indicates that more lawsuits in other states are expected to follow—all being part of an effort to show that churches are improper polling places because they cannot be religiously and politically neutral and because their use is subject to widespread abuse.
“Churches are currently the most common polling location in America” according to James Hurley, the lead attorney handling the case. Speaking at yesterday’s press conference, Hurley noted that while some churches cover or remove religious symbols in those parts of their facilities used as polling places, not all do so, nor is the practice required everywhere. “When asked, the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Office said there was no rule requiring removal of such religious icons,” Hurley added.
Rabinowitz’s complaint is that, because he was assigned to vote at Emmanuel Catholic Church in Delray Beach, Florida, he found it necessary when entering the polling place to “walk past a church-sponsored ‘pro-life’ banner framed by multiple giant crosses before even entering the church” to vote. This caused him to be “extremely upset” regarding the religious setting of the polls. According to Hurley, “Rabinowitz observed many religious symbols in plain view” in the voting area. They were “surrounding the election judges and in direct line above the voting machines. These objects included a sign declaring that ‘Each of Us Matters to God,’ multiple crucifixes, a sign that says ‘God, I Make a Difference,’ a large copy of the Lord’s Prayer and a Hail Mary, and a large poster of the Ten Commandments.” When Rabinowitz objected and “asked election officials to remove or cover them for the remainder of the voting” officials allegedly refused to do so.
“This is clearly a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” Hurley concluded, because it “has the primary effect of advancing religion.”
Also speaking at the press conference were the president and executive director of the American Humanist Association, the organization behind the new legal center, and Heidi Bruggink, the center’s legal coordinator. Speaking of the AHLC in general, Bruggink reported, “Our attorney roster includes many accomplished and prominent nontheistic attorneys, including Jim McCollum, Wendy Kaminer, and Michael Newdow.” These three are the most famous members of a legal team that “now consists of twenty-seven committed lawyers supported by several law students” and others.
The litigation challenging churches as polling places is a result of volunteer action nationwide by members of the American Humanist Association. “We put out a call to our members whose polling places were churches, asking them to report what they saw,” said the organization’s president, Mel Lipman. And this is what led to the Florida case and others that are expected to follow.