Editor’s note: The Rev. Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
By Barry W. Lynn, Special to CNN
I live in Maryland, where we have a lot of controversial questions on Tuesday's ballot, including referenda on marriage equality, the rights of immigrants and the expansion of gambling.
Many churches and other houses of worship have taken stands on these issues and lots of others, which is their prerogative. Although federal law prohibits churches from endorsing or opposing candidates, they have the right to speak out on ballot referenda and on other issues, from abortion to zoning.
All of this church-based political activity makes me uneasy about casting ballots in houses of worship, especially those festooned with political signs. And yet today, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of churches around the country are being pressed into service as polling places.
At Americans United for Separation of Church and State, we get a steady stream of calls about this phenomenon every election season. Some complain of being forced to cast their ballot in a house of worship when there’s a nearby public school, library or community center that could just as easily act as a polling place.
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We shouldn’t dismiss these concerns as whining from an overly sensitive band of people who are religion-phobic. These concerns are legitimate. And some intriguing studies even suggest that voting in a church might influence voters.
The American Humanist Association, which filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against voting in churches in Florida, cited a recent Baylor University study published in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion that found that people in the Netherlands and England reported more conservative views to a pollster when in the vicinity of a church.
“[The] important finding here,” said the study’s co-author, Wade Rowatt, “is that people near a religious building reported slightly but significantly more conservative social and political attitudes than similar people near a government building.”
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An earlier study by Stanford University reported a similar effect. “Voting in a church could activate norms of following church doctrine,” said Jonah Berger, a Stanford researcher. “Such effects may even occur outside an individual’s awareness.”
In Maryland, this might mean that an on-the-fence voter facing the marriage equality question might be pushed to vote no by something as simple as a sign or pamphlet in the church/polling place. Such material might even affect a soft voter’s candidate choices.
How is this possible? Psychologists call it “priming,” the idea that even subtle visual or verbal cues can affect human behavior.
More studies need to be done to validate and explain this phenomenon. In the meantime it would make sense to avoid using churches as polling places. Neutral sites should always be preferred.
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There are other reasons to skip casting ballots in the basilica.
I’ve talked with people who describe their unease voting on an abortion-related referendum in a Catholic church, where they may be surrounded by posters depicting abortion as a grisly holocaust. Others say they don’t want to back an abortion-rights candidate in a church that is known for anti-abortion activism.
No public library, public school or town hall would display such material next to the voting machines. No government building would have a towering cross in the voting area.
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Many of those who have contacted us about this have reported that churches will not remove this material and that pastors argue that they have a right to keep it up.
As churches become more aggressive in the political arena, the argument that they can be neutral sites for voting, a concept that has been embraced by some courts, comes up short.
I’ve even talked with atheists, Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians who don’t want to exercise a basic constitutional right in a church. These people have nothing against Christianity; they simply don’t believe that a fundamental democratic right should hinge on their willingness to enter a church. (And yes, most of the houses of worship used as polling places are Christian churches.)
People who support using churches as polling places often point to the need to maximize the number of polling locations to increase turnout. That’s a laudable goal, but there are many ways to do this that don’t rely on using churches, like early voting and voting by mail.
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For those who prefer to show up in person on Election Day, there are plenty of schools, libraries, town halls and civic centers to meet the need for polling centers. In small towns and rural areas, well-known commercial sites would make better polling places than churches.
If there is absolutely no other option than voting in churches, I recommend that election officials make it clear to officials at the church that they must play by the same rules as every other site.
That means no politicking inside a certain zone. And the area where the voting occurs should be cleansed of all religious symbols and political material. The voting area should be as neutral as possible.
Voting is every Americans right, some would say duty. Let’s do all we can to avoid making people feel unwelcome at the ballot box.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Barry W. Lynn.
Agreed! My polling place was a high school nearby but was moved to a church. I feel it is disrespectful to do so in a church. I would prefer not to.
"Some complain of being forced to cast their ballot in a house of worship when there’s a nearby public school, library or community center that could just as easily act as a polling place."
I'm not getting it.....what in the world is stopping anyone from using schools, libraries, or community centers as polling places in the first place? Is it that hard to do this in these buildings? Or is there some law in these places that restricts using such gov't facilities this way? Or....what?
Voting sites are not set uo in schools because classes are in session and the additional traffic and noise would be detremental to the students plus there would be a safety concern if a fight, gun play or some other situation occured. Libraries are meant to be kept quiet for those using the library services. Voting traffic would be disruptive to those using the library. If states make sure that any political signs and verbal campaigning don't occur, there is nothing wrong with voting in churches!! I did this mkorning and it didn't affect how I voted! Churches generally have the space and the parking to accomodate a voting location!
Re: schools/libraries, that kinda makes sense....although I do recall back in my elementary school all the "VOTE" signs that went up around our halls 1-2x a year, which directed voters to our gym....but maybe that was then? Some libraries here have separate rooms outside the actual reading/study traffic area that accomodates noisier activities (e.g. classes, tots play time, etc) and would be ideal for polls. Our state (in the PNW) mostly does mail-in now, but I always went to community centers to vote before. Am a church-going person myself, but I've never been to a church to vote, nor have I seen polling places in churches where I've lived. But I suppose for rural areas, I can see where a church may be the only public place available to set up polls....in which case, Rev. Lynn's suggestion to "stop using churches" might not work.
Today is turning out to be a good voting day. Our church has taken well over a hundred people to vote. I myself took 17 during the course of the morning. This afternoon, I will go back to it and help people get out and vote.
Vote Romney/Ryan 2012!
Another good Christian voting for a heretic.....LOL
Funny how quick the christian fundamentalists were to accept Mormonism, a religion that they have always considered a cult. Religions change their rules to suit them whenever it's convenient, especially if there's a dollar to be made from it.
If what you say is true, and I doubt it, wouldn't voting in a government building make one more likely to vote in favor of big governemnt? But, then again, that's probably what you're hoping for. There are no neutral places, only places certain individuals like and other don't. And the powerful will force their will on the meek. Churches didn't volunteer to host the polls to influence the electorate; they accepted the burden out of their dedication to community service (and because no other group would give up control of their space - and their profits - for a day).
It is a state and federal election; even a minimalist government would have buildings so use them. And don't believe the GOP lies about reducing government – Reagan and the two Bushes all increased government so we know the next GOP president will not reduce government.
Note also that Romney is credited with the SLC Olympics but it was Federal money he used.
*** "It is a state and federal election; even a minimalist government would have buildings so use them." ***
That's what I don't get - if such buildings are there for even a minimalist gov't, why isn't that gov't using them? Or if they are, is it for lack of space that they also have to use churches? Maybe I'm reading it wrong, but Rev. Lynn's article seems to suggest that some municipalities are *deliberately* forgoing available gov't buildings and instead choosing churches to set up polling places....and for the life of me, I can't understand why *any* gov't would do that.
Our State has 2 major amendments on the ballot, one involves marriage. I was in and out, no signs of either political party, nor images of JC...Very well planned out, even noticed that they choose a very plain room that was close to some bathrooms. Whomever was in charge had their act together and regardless of where I was voting I knew what I was voting for.
I totally agree with this. Keep church and state separate in every aspect. Thankfully, in my town, we all vote in schools and town halls.
There is no such thing as the separation between church and state. The First Amendment is designed to protect churches from the state, not to protect the state from churches.
This is just absurd. A church is merely a building, used on some occasions for people who choose to worship there. It can be a sanctuary. To rail against using churches for any other purpose is insanely paranoid. Do you fear something in the church will jump out and grab you? Something that might actually offer you a safe, peaceful place to think? Are your opinions so tender that they cannot withstand a suggestion that someone might disagree with you?
That level of stupity is simply amazing. If you mix church and state neither will be protected from the other.
Evangelical, you are very, very WRONG!
Stop telling half truths, Evangelical. The first amendment was designed to do both.
Wrong, evangelical. The founding fathers were very intent on this being a country free from religious persecution. One of hteir primary fears and what they hoped to avoid was the establishment of a national religion. The first amendment and others are geared towards that effect – to protect the country from a religious tyranny. The same kind (such as yours) that pretends that this is a Christian nation.
Evangelical, Do you think that by repeating a lie often enough, people will believe it?
(I have to post this yet again for idiot Evangelical.)
If there ever was anything that should be kept secular in the U.S. in every sense of the word, including location, it is the process of voting. It was most likely very intimidating for people to vote around the time of our founding, because different Christian sects were fighting with one another. People were hanging Quakers in Massachusetts; Anglicans were persecuting Baptists in Virginia and other places. This infuriated the key founders of our government, and so they went to work right away to make the 1st Amendment to the Constitution to address the issue of separation of church and state.
The 1st Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, but through its Establishment Clause, prohibits the establishment of a state religion and over-influence of religion on government. The 1963 Supreme Court case regarding mandated Bible readings in public schools (ruled unconstitutional) is an example of the application of the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment. It is for the benefit of all that these measures are still in place today. I would argue for the same reason, voting should not take place in houses of worship.
During his presidency, James Madison vetoed two bills that he believed would violate the separation of church and state. He also came to oppose the long-established practice of employing chaplains at public expense in the House of Representatives and Senate on the grounds that it violated the separation of church and state and the principles of religious freedom**. Starting from their anger over feuding Christian sects in their home state, until the end of their lives, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were fierce promoters of the separation of church and state.
Who was James Madison? He was the 4th President of the United States and the chief architect of the U.S. Constitution.
** Library of Congress – James Madison Papers – Detached memorandum, ca. 1823.
Barry Lynn makes me sick. Makes me SICK.
Ignorant, backward, evangelical Christians make me SICK!
The fact that Barry Lynn makes you sick.....makes me very happy.
As long as the church doesn't try to sway people one way or the other, I don't see an issue. It's just a large building, Your deity won't smite you for going inside to do something totally neutral.
Your deity won't smite you because it doesn't exist.
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Oh my! Did someone p i z z in your baba ganoush this morning?
"We shouldn’t dismiss these concerns as whining from an overly sensitive band of people who are religion-phobic. These concerns are legitimate".
What concerns? The left is religion-phobic and always looking for a way to marginalize and ignore those that have something more in their lives than the lastest iPhone.
And the religious right marginalizes ignores, and demonizes those of us who don't believe in their imaginary sky daddy by making us out to be shallow, materialistic and uncaring.
It is possible to live a compassionate, giving, full life because you want to, not because you're afraid the sky daddy will have a temper tantrum and punish you if you don't.
Some people need to be god fearing to choose to live life as Jesus would and some choose to do so because it makes sense as being the human thing to do. I am not a Christian but I find myself acting more Christianlike than many, hateful church going people.
Hey BARRY. Churches were used as meeting places prior to and during the American Revolutionary War to discuss FREEDOM. If the foundations of this country could be discussed and debated in churches, what's that matter with people voting in churches today?? I think you just don't like the demographic and voting patterns of people of faith.
1st world problems LOL
How about taxing churches who chime in on politics. How about automatically registering all adults to vote? How about putting an a-political federal agency in charge of elections? The US has the closest thing to a third world voting system in the western world.
Government buildings such twp buildings, schools, etc should be the first options for voting locations. However, if the local church, KofC, Temple, etc., can best accommodate voters for parking, access, etc., then it should be used. This is not a separation of church and state issue, it's just common sense. Stop the complaining.
you do know that a church is nothing more than brick and morter...same for a mosque... or temple.... if you are a believer then God's house is in your heart... a church is a MERELY a meeting place... JUST WHAT PLANET ARE YOU LIBERALS COMING FROM. ......BOO !
We are from a planet that takes separation of church and state very seriously.
If a mosque is just a building of brick and mortar, then why did conservatives freak out when one was proposed in New York City within blocks of the WTC?
It is similar in nature to the 1963 SC case regarding Bible readings in public schools. We currently have about 21% of non-Christians that have to come to a voting site (I'm assuming most of these churches used for voting are Christian), albeit only on election day. I like the idea of getting rid of physical-presence voting. Let's save some gas.
If you really want totally separation of Church and State, stop taking religious holidays off work. Everyone sure enjoys those!
I would love to have days off during non-holiday times of the year. But if the Christian status quo deems that I have to take my days off on their holidays, I am definitely not going to protest by working. Nobody takes those days off because they want to, it's merely tradition that keeps it that way. If I could trade in all my government holidays for half the number of floating holidays, I would do it in a heartbeat. Not having to walk by the guy on probation ringing a bell outside of every Wal Mart or Target would be a great way to spend my arbitrary day off.
What trips me out is the arrogance and egocentricity of this post that I am replying to. Why would you automatically assume that people take those days off because of the Religion tied to the Holiday? It makes more sense to me that we all have that day off because of some stupid tradition. Nobody even asks why we get them off, we just take them. Who wouldn't want to get paid to not go to work?
As an example, It'd be like saying everyone who goes to a church on Day B gets $100. Then you see everyone show up and assume it's because they are believers. Clue: It's the 100 bucks. Same thing with religious holidays. If you wanna give me a day off because of what you believe, fine. I won't complain. Just make sure you view reality AFTER you take off the cross shaped lenses (instead of rose-tinted, get it?!).
I agree, but as far as I know christmas is the only religious day forced onto us.
If a person is so weak of mind that voting in a church affects them, they have much bigger problems & probably shouldn't be voting at all.
Environment effects decision making. This applies to everyone. It was famously demonstrated in Milgram's obedience experiment and the Zimbardo prison study.
Well, churches ARE for the weak-minded.
Again, if you too weak minded to have your decision made by the time you're voting, maybe you shouldn't be voting.
Ballots have more on them than just the presidential election. Do you know every issue on your state ballot Lilith?
If you're so weak minded that you believe in imaginary, super-duper, all-seeing, all-knowing, bad tempered, petulant, murderous sky daddy, you definitely shouldn't be voting. Or breeding.
Yes I do Huebert, but I agree that there are sometimes when a person makes a decision at that time. What I'm saying is that it's pretty weak minded to be intimidated by a church building .... but I very much do understand that it happens. That's called psychological conditioning or indoctrination, and it's too bad.
No, the point is that the separation of church and state is crumbling. It gets even worse in times of election when canidates are attempting to sway die-hard bible-thumpers by praying with bishops/preists before public appearances. Religion should be a private deal, not to be put on paper or in media; much less on government-issued currency and in our pledge. There is no reason that a government should permit a religious facility to host a governmental function. This influences the voters and encourages relations between the church and government.
My polling place is at the zoo and giving the current state of politics, that seems VERY appropriate.
It seems pretty obvious that voting should be done in government facilities .. but seriously, a church is just a large building that simply serves a function. Also, it's the least they could do for the privilege of not paying taxes.
they get paid for the use of the facilities, and they "forget" to take down their propaganda before opening the facility to voters – clear violation of the law.
I agree. Churches should not be used as polling places, it makes me feel uncomfortable and I don't like it. I almost don't want to vote so that I can avoid walking into that hateful place, but then they would be winning, so I man up and do it.. even though I don't like it.
You have to "man up" to go and vote ??? Thanks. That is the funniest thing I have seen or read in many many years. You must have a very difficult life, if it takes all the courage you can muster to walk into a church. Wow – this may be the best example I've ever seen of how soft many Americans have become. Good luck with getting up the courage to walk to the mailbox tomorrow – you could be attacked by a squirrel or trip on a sidewalk crack.
Goodbye. Would you be happy voting in a mosque?
Until you experience living life as an out of the closet atheist in this country, especially in the situations that lead you into the den of believers (their homes or churches or public gatherings), you will simply not be able to appreciate the mind-numbing frustration that accompanies walking in their midst. Islam is not the only religion of intolerance on our planet.
Voting in a mosque honestly would not bother me, as long as it had 4 walls and could accommodate the voting booths.
No doubt, but that slice of "believers" who go out of their way to make other people uncomfortable is pretty thin. If 10% of people bug you, do what you can to avoid them. If more like 50% of people bug you, that's probably your problem... and we have medication for that now.
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.