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Marijuana legalization push prompts end of churches’ use as polling

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–At least three churches in Jacksonville, Fla., will no longer be used as public polling places, following incidents involving unwanted campaigning on church property.
Jack Snell, pastor of Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church, arrived at his church during local elections last fall to find a group petitioning for legalization of marijuana. The group, Floridians for Medical Rights, had set up a table under the church’s walkway, which led to the rooms where voting was taking place. Several members expressed concern about the group advocating a stance the church did not support.
A police officer, who already was at the church, asked if the church would like the group removed. He acknowledged they legally had the right to petition within 50 feet of the polling center, but took note they were on church property. Snell accepted the offer of help and the group was asked to leave.
Before leaving, the group of two or three members asked for the location of another church polling center. They also threatened to sue, and since then have claimed their volunteers were harassed and threatened by members of Hendricks Baptist.
“There was no real harassment other than questioning,” Snell maintained. “If they consider that harassment, then I suppose they were.
“They were on our property without our permission,” Snell said. “We had the right to ask them to leave.”
The supervisor of elections called Snell the next day to apologize for the incident. “She told us we were within our rights to ask the group to leave and offered her apologies,” he recalled.
But a few days later, Snell was notified the group had filed a suit. A federal judge ruled May 11 in favor of Floridians for Medical Rights, saying they had the legal right to petition at any of the city’s 267 polling places as long as they stayed at least 50 feet from the polls.
Though Hendricks was not named in the legal action, Snell was advised the church would have to allow anyone to petition outside its voting facilities.
“I was told when a church agrees to allow [the supervisor of elections] to use the facilities, the church becomes a public place and must allow groups to petition,” Snell explained.
Since then, the supervisor of elections has removed Hendricks from the list of polling centers. The center was relocated across the street to a Lutheran church. Snell was told the center was moved to protect the church from further embarrassment, though no one from Hendricks Baptist requested it.
Two other churches in Jacksonville have encountered similar problems with Floridians for Medical Rights petitioning outside church facilities. Both churches have closed their doors for future use as polling centers.
While Jacksonville churches have encountered difficulties, three Tallahassee churches and two Tampa churches contacted by the Florida Baptist Witness newsjournal reported they have not had similar problems with the use of their facilities as polling places. Local ordinances in these cities prevent groups or politicians from posting signs or advocating issues at polling centers.

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  • Brittany Jarvis