The Appignani Humanist Legal Center (AHLC) has lost its test case on separation of church and state in United States elections. Summary judgment was given on July 31, 2007 in the case of Rabinowitz v. Anderson, a constitutional test of whether churches should be used as polling stations. The case was filed on November 29, 2006, in response to a specific abuse during the recent United States midterm elections.
U.S. District Judge Donald L. Middlebrooks disagreed with the AHLC’s overwhelming evidence that the pervasive use of churches as polling stations violates the constitutional principle of government neutrality on religion. But the stakes in this case were unusually high. A decision favorable to the AHLC could have set the wheels in motion to outlaw the use of churches as polling places across the nation, resulting in the reassignment of polling places from coast to coast. The judge didn’t appear up to making that bold move.
Judge Middlebrooks wrote, “This is not a case where a governmental actor actively placed a religious icon or message at a voting location, or on another piece of government property.” He also said, “Voting in a secular election, even in the presence of religious objects, is not equivalent to state-sponsored prayer at a public school graduation.”
“We’re saddened by this decision,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association (AHA), “but the struggle isn’t over. We haven’t ruled out an appeal in this case and will relaunch this case in another jurisdiction, challenging a similar abuse. We have members all over the United States who have answered our call to report these abuses or be plaintiffs.”
Churches are the most common polling locations in America. This means that, during the process of voting, many citizens are surrounded on all sides by religious symbolism and, sometimes, politicized religious propaganda. This not only creates a religiously charged and politically biased atmosphere, but it also serves to promote the specific church hosting the polls.
Rabinowitz v. Anderson highlighted this flagrant disregard of church-state separation. The polling place of plaintiff Jerry Rabinowitz was at Emmanuel Catholic Church in Delray Beach, Florida. Even before entering the voting area he had to walk past a church-sponsored “pro-life” banner framed by multiple crosses. Then, inside, where he checked in and where he voted, Rabinowitz faced prominent religious symbols and slogans.
“Such a religiously-charged environment can serve to intimidate or unduly influence a person’s vote,” added AHA president and constitutional law professor Mel Lipman. “Recent studies reveal that environmental cues have a measurable effect on electoral results. Therefore, the government must provide a neutral setting for voters, free from religious or other influences. Sadly, due to Judge Middlebrooks’ decision, many barriers still stand in the way of guaranteeing this kind of atmosphere on voting day for all Americans.”
The AHLC will continue to oppose the constant encroachments made on church-state separation by the Religious Right under the administration of George W. Bush. “Despite this setback, we will continue to send a clear message to politicians at every level that violations of religious liberty and church-state separation simply can’t be tolerated,” said Lipman. “We the people value our religious and voting freedoms and will remain vigilant so these freedoms are respected.”
The Appignani Humanist Legal Center is part of the American Humanist Association. Consisting of over two dozen humanist lawyers and backed by humanists from coast to coast, it is the first nontheistic legal center in the capital of the United States.