Election worker wearing Jesus shirt wins lawsuit.

August 30, 2021

Peggy Wittman wearing the shirt at an Oceana County Board of Commissioners meeting last May.

Election worker wearing Jesus shirt wins lawsuit.

Poll workers from now on will wear City of Hart election uniforms.

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor.

HART — A federal judge ruled in favor of a Hart woman who wore a Jesus shirt while serving as an election worker for the City of Hart during the general election Nov. 3, 2020.

Judge Paul Maloney of the US District Court for the Western District of Michigan ordered $81.75 in damages to Margaret “Peggy” Wittman and over $10,000 for reasonable attorney fees.

The shirt stated: My Heart will TRUST in you JESUS.

The lawsuit said Wittman “does not cease being a Christian when she is performing her duties as an election worker for the city.’’

Wittman was represented by the American Freedom Law Center in Ann Arbor. Defendants named in the lawsuit were the City of Hart, Former City Manager Lynne Ladner and Clerk Cheryl Rabe. 

Wittman signed up to be an election worker for $10.50 an hour. At a training session the day before, election workers were told they could not engage in political speech while working the polls on election day.

“In other words, the election workers were told that they could not advocate for or against any candidate or ballot issue,’’ the lawsuit states.

A letter from city officials also directed election workers to “please make sure that there is no visible campaign material in/on your car if you choose to park at City Hall. Also, you should not wear any item that may appear to support a candidate or issue.’’

When Wittman arrived at the polls on election day, Rabe approached her and directed her to turn her ‘’trust in Jesus’’ shirt around and wear it backwards because it was considered to be “political speech,’’ according to the lawsuit. She refused. Wittman was then told to wear a sweater to cover the shirt, and she again refused. Wittman “sincerely believes that Defendant Rabe’s order was an offense to God,’’ according to the lawsuit. Wittman refused Rabe’s demand “because she did not want her religion ‘turned around, covered up, or hidden by city officials,’ stated the lawsuit. “Because (Wittman) would not act contrary to her firmly-held religious beliefs and convictions, she was ‘relieved of her duties’ as an election worker.”

The case sought “to protect and vindicate fundamental constitutional rights,” stated the lawsuit. “It is a civil rights action brought under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution…”

“Jesus holds no political office and was not on the ballot,” said Wittman.

Wittman remained in the voting precinct, observing from the public viewing area for the remainder of the day until the building closed at midnight. “If Plaintiff’s TRUST in JESUS shirt was ‘political speech’ — i.e., advocating for or against a candidate or a ballot issue — then she should not have been allowed within 100 feet of the polls pursuant to Michigan election law.”

“City officials, including defendants, would permit a Muslim election worker to wear a hijab or a Jewish election worker to wear a Yamaka while working the polls within the city. These articles of clothing convey the Muslim and Jewish religious beliefs and convictions of the respective wearer. Yet, defendants would not permit plaintiff to wear clothing that conveys her particular Christian religious beliefs because, according to defendants, Plaintiff’s religious beliefs are ‘political.’

“On Election Day, city officials, including defendants, permitted an election worker to wear a shirt stating, ‘One Nation Under God.’ This election worker was not relieved of her duties,” states the lawsuit.

Election workers are certified for two years, and Wittman intends to work at other elections in the future, according to the lawsuit.

“The majority of all costs to the city were covered by the city’s insurance company,” said City Manager Rob Splane, who was not the city manager at the time of the Nov. 3 election. Ladner, who was the city manager at the time, has since resigned. 

“There were some negligible legal costs that will be paid by the city, but those are minor,” said Splane. The $81.75 in damages awarded to Wittman are for her lost wages, he said.

“Mrs. Wittman is eligible to reapply for her position as a poll worker. There is a lottery system involved in choosing the applicant pool. She would be eligible just like all other applicants for poll working positions. There is now a dress code in place code for poll workers to avoid similar incidents from occurring in the future. All poll workers working for the City of Hart going forward will now wear a City of Hart election uniform. That uniform information is given to all applicants for the position.

“The city’s stance is not to publicly comment on litigation issues,” he said. “The City of Hart’s staff and elected officials work diligently to serve our community in the best way possible.”

Splane cited the city’s preamble of the charter: “We the people of the City of Hart, Oceana County, Michigan, in order to secure the benefits of efficient self government, and to promote and protect our common interests and welfare, do ordain and establish this home rule charter for the government of our city.”

“As a community, I believe we all need to work together and strive to promote and protect our common interests and welfare. It was our charge on Aug. 12, 1947 and it still is today.”

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