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City council member, pastor spar over churches as polling places

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Elliot Hughes
Thursday, August 20, 2015

JANESVILLE--The pastor of New Life Assembly of God has withdrawn his church as an option to host a city polling station and accused a city council member of discrimination.

In an Aug. 14 email to the Janesville City Council obtained by The Gazette, the Rev. Michael Jackson said he withdrew the offer after council member Sam Liebert at the Aug. 10 council meeting said he preferred not to use the church because of separation-of-church-and-state concerns.

Jackson accused Liebert of discriminating against his church and pointed out that First Lutheran Church in Janesville already hosts polling for four wards. First Lutheran has done so since at least the 1990s, according to its pastor, the Rev. Jim Melvin.

Jackson wrote in the email that Liebert is “the one member of the council who should have been most sensitive to the issue of discrimination,” apparently referring to the fact that Liebert is black.

In a reply email, Liebert said he was offended. He denied discriminating against the church, saying he believes in a “strong separation of church and state” and has interest in eventually moving polls out of First Lutheran as well.

Liebert also addressed Jackson's comment about sensitivity to discrimination: “I'm personally very offended that you would compare the last 500 years of institutional racism, dating back to slavery, as an analogy of what you perceive to be happening to your church. As a white man in America with financial security, you could never fully understand or comprehend what it is like to be a black person or black man in America ... I believe your comments were in very poor taste.”

When reached for comment Thursday, Jackson said he had not read Liebert's emailed reply but said he is “well-acquainted with the argument that he's going to come back with” regarding sensitivity to discrimination.

“My counter to that is, there has been more Christians killed in the last 115 years than in the combined history of Christendom,” he said. “I understand their suffrage. I get that. I said what I did in my letter because the church of Jesus Christ is being marginalized. The Christian population is being persecuted around the world.”

NEW LOCATIONS

The city recently began rethinking its polling locations for nearly 13,000 voters after the Janesville School District indicated for security reasons it no longer wants three of its elementary schools to host voters. Rotary Botanical Gardens also wanted to pull out because the voting affected its revenue, city officials said.

City Clerk-Treasurer Dave Godek suggested to the city council at its Aug. 10 meeting that New Life could host wards 23-26, about 3,300 registered voters. He said the church has a separate gymnasium without religious artifacts.

Godek, who was not available for comment Thursday, said at the meeting that an alternative for wards 23-26 would be moving them to Craig High School. But “it would be quite a trip for some folks,” he said.

Council members stated a preference to remain in the elementary schools for a variety of reasons and tabled the matter.

VOTING IN CHURCHES

Godek has said the city normally adjusts its voting locations after each census to accommodate population shifts.

In an interview Thursday, Liebert cited that as the reason why he is not pushing for First Lutheran to end its role as a polling location. He said if he is not on the council after 2020, he would hope the governing body would consider a change.

He said a school or government building would be “a much more neutral building” than a church.

“Are they going to take down their giant 60-foot cross every time they go to the polls? That's a religious artifact,” Liebert said, referring to the tall, white cross outside New Life's building. “I think when we're forcing voters to go to a church, it's not fair to those who may not have the same belief.”

Jackson said the church often partners with government for events and hosting polls is not inappropriate. He added that symbols of Christianity are being "erased from our culture."

Melvin, the pastor at First Lutheran, said he is “neutral” on using churches for polling. He said voters at his church use a gymnasium with a separate entrance and with no religious artifacts inside.

“We have a big parking lot, an accessible space; it's a good spot,” Melvin said. “It would be kind of a shame to inconvenience people. I don't see any conflict here at all.”

Godek has said the city makes accommodations for anyone who does not want to vote in a church building, such as allowing them to vote absentee from City Hall or their home.

According to Charles Haynes, the executive director of the Religious Freedom Center in Washington, D.C., churches hosting polling places do not violate the Establishment Clause in the U.S. Constitution as long as there is a legitimate secular or civic purpose for doing so.

“That does not mean, however, that government may not cooperate with religious institutions,” Haynes said in an email to the Gazette.

If, for example, a city used only houses of worship for polling or officials allowed churches to set up tables with religious literature at the polling space, then there may be legal problems, he said.



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