Is There a Prejudice Against Synagogues as Polling Stations in Palm Beach County?

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Last week, the Palm Beach elections supervisor raised eyebrows when she decided to move a polling station from a mosque to a library, apparently caving to complaints from Islamophobic residents. But it seems like there is also be prejudice against synagogues at the Palm Beach county elections office.

In a county once declared “the most Jewish jurisdiction in the world outside Israel,” there are 90 churches registered as polling places and only three synagogues, according to data drawn from the Palm Beach elections supervisor's website. In a place where 20 percent of people are Jewish,  fewer than 4 percent of religious polling sites are synagogues.

The synagogues serving as polling sites are Delray Beach’s Temple Sinai and Boynton Beach’s Temple Shaarei Shalom and Chabad Lubavitch. Meanwhile, Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Orthodox, and Unitarian polling places dot the county from Jupiter to Boca Raton.

In all, churches account for nearly 20 percent of the county’s 465 polling places. (A call to the Palm Beach County supervisor of elections office seeking comment yesterday was routed to chief deputy supervisor of elections Erin Lewandowski. She didn't return a call by press time, but we will add her response as soon as possible.)

Ken Loukinen, director of regional operations for the American Atheists, said no polling station should be in any place of worship at all. Instead, he says, counties should use secular civic spaces like public schools.

"The problem with religious sites," Loukinen said, "is that they could influence somebody who may be going to the polls undecided on topics such as abortion or stem cell research or evolution being taught in science classrooms."

Shortly before the 2014 general elections, the Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church was yanked from the list of polling places in Brevard County after protesters complained that the church had erected a granite memorial to the unborn a few feet from the polls and had used its roadside marquee to urge voters to vote yes on Amendment 2, the state’s 2008 ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage.

Hava Holzhauer, regional director of the Florida Anti-Defamation League, said she understood that religious sites tend to be chosen as polling places because of their accessibility. She declined to comment on why churches seem to be so much more accessible than synagogues in Palm Beach.

When Palm Beach county decided to move precinct 4170’s polling place from the Islamic Center of Boca Raton to the Spanish River Library, Holzhauer said, “Everything points to the fact that it was not changed because of accessibility but because people don’t want to go to a mosque.”

“We have broader issues in our community, and we can’t solve them all quickly,” Holzhauer said, “but we can start by looking at people who are not exactly like us but who go to the same schools, shop at the same stores, and vote in the same elections and in the same voting booths. It’s important to come together as a community and not to further divide ourselves.”

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