Floridians for Medical Rights, an independent, state-based organization that is trying to gather the almost half a million signatures required to get their issue on the state's 2000 ballot, filed suit in federal court on Wednesday against the Sheriff and Supervisor of Elections of Jacksonville. The suit alleges a failure to abide by a prior negotiated settlement to uphold the rights of petitioners, resulting in threats and harassment at several polling locations where they were legally attempting to collect signatures. Floridians for Medical Rights has called on the US Department of Justice to investigate the matter.
According to FMR, petitioners outside of the polling location at the First Southern Baptist Church were approached first by a poll worker and later by Pastor Jack Youngblood and ordered to leave. The petitioners displayed the federal court settlement that they won after facing similar difficulties at a different polling location in November. Eventually, the police were called and, in an exchange caught on audiotape, Sgt. Asa Higgs of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Department told the petitioners that they could not remain and collect signatures. When told of the federal court settlement, Higgs replied, "I don't care."
The Week Online spoke with Pastor Youngblood who said that his church doesn't "open our grounds for any issue to be petitioned." He added that had he known of the possibility, he would never have leased the space out as a polling location. Pastor Youngblood called the petitioners "very aggressive" and claimed that the 50 feet from the door requirement was insufficient to keep the petitioners from essentially blocking all access to the facilities, which house a K-12 school, a college and the church, as well as the polling location.
"I came out to intervene when I was informed of a petitioner preaching to a fourteen year-old girl on the benefits of marijuana use" he said.
Pastor Youngblood, however, blames the incident on outgoing Jacksonville Supervisor of Elections Tommie Bell, who claimed to have sent out election notices to all polling locations. Pastor Youngblood claims that he never received a notice, and that he canceled his church's participation as a polling location on the very day of the election.
"I can't prove anything" said Youngblood, "but given the problems that they (the FMR petitioners) apparently posed in November, I believe that there was a decision made by the Supervisor of Elections not to send those notices out, rather than face the prospect of numerous churches declining to participate in the election."
Youngblood also said that the state should go back to requiring 200 or 300 feet of space between petitioners and the entrance to polling sites. "Fifty feet doesn't help us here. The way our facility is constructed, there's a choke point between our two buildings that is fifty-five feet from our entrance. That allows the petitioners to accost everyone coming here for whatever reason. In the past, the law was at least 200 feet. That would put them on the outskirts of the parking lot and I'd have no problem with it." He added, "This church has never surrendered the sovereignty of our facility to any entity, governmental or otherwise."
The suit seeks criminal prosecution of the officers involved under Florida's election law, as well as an investigation into the ongoing neglect by the Jacksonville Sheriff's office and the supervisor of elections office to protect the petitioners first amendment rights.