Janesville council members hope to close door on churches as polling locations

Election Day 2014 photos
Middleton polling location

Janesville residents have been coming to First Lutheran Church to cast their ballot for decades, but after recent city council discussion, voting in churches could be a thing of the past.

“I’ve been here for 25 years and it may have been here all that time, but it’s been here for a long time,” First Lutheran Rev. Jim Melvin said.

The Janesville City Council is looking for new polling places for close to 13,000 residents after the school district asked to eliminate three elementary schools as sites. But council members fear voting at churches blur the lines between separation of church and state.

“If the city wants to continue doing it here that’s fine by us but I wouldn’t feel offended if it was removed. I don’t know personally anyone who is offended but I could conceive of that,” Melvin said.

The Rev. Michael Jackson at New Life Church doesn’t feel the same. His church was proposed as a new location to fill the void, but now Jackson is withdrawing his church as an option.

In an email obtained by the Janesville Gazette addressed to the city council, Jackson accused council member Sam Liebert of discrimination against his church stating: “I have decided to withdraw our offer to use New Life as a polling place. I felt that New Life was discriminated against by the one member of the council: Sam Liebert. In order for the issue to have been non nondiscriminatory, Mr. Liebert would have needed to discuss the issue of First Lutheran being a polling site. That was not made into an issue though. The issue was using New Life and New Life only.”

“I don’t think myself or any of the other council members were trying to discriminate against his church or any church specifically, but trying to keep polling places as neutral as possible,” Liebert said.

Liebert said even with First Lutheran’s long-standing location he would like to see all polling places move away from religious locations.

“I think it’s about respecting people’s ability to vote in a neutral location where they are not bombarded with religious icons or different artifacts from that religion,” he said.

But similar to New Life’s proposed polling location, voters at First Lutheran are not greeted by crosses or bibles. Polling is set up in the church’s gym, which is separate from the rest of the building.

“There aren’t any religious icons or artifacts here. It wouldn’t be much different if you were entering a school if you weren’t paying much attention to it,” Melvin said.

Even with 11 city ward locations being reassigned to new locations, Liebert said there are better options than polling on church grounds.

“It wouldn’t be that big of a change to go from a church to a school. So, I don’t think there is any shortage of locations. I think it’s more about inconvenience to the staff at the schools that they don’t want them there,” he said.

The city typically makes most of its adjustments in polling locations in the years immediately after a new U.S. Census, Liebert said.

Janesville city officials said they are working with the school district and council to find a polling solution that would fit everyone’s needs.