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My Take: Stop using churches as polling places
The author says that churches that act as polling places can sway voters.
November 6th, 2012
09:19 AM ET

My Take: Stop using churches as polling places

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.

Casting a ballot in a church? Tweet us about it

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.”

My Take: On Election Day, I’m proclaiming loyalty to Jesus

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.

Imagining the first Mormon White House

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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: 2012 Election • Church • Church and state • Politics

soundoff (1,507 Responses)
  1. Topher

    Ok, it's true, I'm an idiot fundamentalist christian with the agenda to control the world through my lord and Saviour Satan!!!

    November 6, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      Don'y let the boy's brother hear you calling out His name in vanity's sake. God forbade such a thang!

      November 6, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
  2. dave

    Frankly, if you don't know who you're going to vote for when you walk into the voting booth, you probably should have stayed home.

    November 6, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  3. mjbrin

    i vote in ohio
    i have voted in a school gym
    a church's cafeteria
    never in a actual church
    are you saying that if you vote on church property that you have tendency to vote that church's way......not likely
    i also go to church and never vote the way my pastor wants me to, guess i am going to hell

    November 6, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • ME II

      ... or maybe your pastor is.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  4. Howard

    I dismiss these concerns as whining from an overly sensitive band of people who are religion-phobic.

    November 6, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  5. Neal

    Are people so really so gullible and spineless that having to walk into a church to cast a vote will force them to reverse themselves on core beliefs? This story is preposterous in its assertions. It's okay to say that some people don't feel comfortable in going inside a church. That's understandable. But to try to put a ridiculous rationale behind that like the areas around churches are conservative so the people voting there are going to automatically vote conservative is so over the top ludicrous it defies description.

    November 6, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • DiatribesAndOvations.com

      Did you read this article? It contains scientific evidence to support its claims.

      Far too many church leaders feel that they are above the laws of the land.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
  6. Franco

    A Church is just a building, unless you are in the service area and services are taking place. Why would anybody feel intimidated by them is nuts. I believe in God and I am sure you do not have to go to Church for the Almighty to know what is inside you.

    November 6, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  7. Topher

    Apple Bush

    Because there's a difference between micro evolution and macro evolution. One is observable and we see it happening. The other (Darwinism) has zero evidence for, though is taught to our children as fact.

    November 6, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • Topher

      Whoops. Reposted to correct place.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • mb2010a

      Sort of like religion, then...

      November 6, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      @Topher

      You are incorrect.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Topher,

      The point you make has been refuted over and over. You don't like evolution because you have a religious agenda and you use confirmation bias. Science is all about observation and macro evolution is observed. What has not been observed is any reputable proof for the earth being 6,000 years old. Go argue your point at talkorgins.org.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • John H.

      Actually micro and macro evolution are the same thing. One is just small changes and the other is a build up of those small changes. We have plenty of proof in the fossil record of evolution (I don't use micro or macro as they are useless terms). You may not accept the proof but those at are important, mainly scientists, almost entirely line up on the side of evolution. That to me says they are right and you are wrong.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • fred

      @Topher

      Macroevolution is merely the result of a lot of microevolution over a very long period of time (more than 6000 years).

      November 6, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  8. Marcus

    No one is more hateful than a liberal. No one.

    November 6, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • greennnnnn

      Okay. I wish I knew everyone the way you do.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      No one is more ignorant than an absolutist....

      November 6, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • mb2010a

      Except maybe Christians...

      November 6, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  9. Augustine

    Flaw in authors arguments. Schools are not neutral places either. Teachers Unions leadership is 100% Dem, Teaching profession is majority Dem. etc I have no problem with churches taking down their posters on election day to conform with polling place laws if thats what has to happen but there are no perfectly unbiased places or people so trying to achieve that pie in the sky reality is pointless. If people arent being intimidated thats a good enough standard and move on to real problems.

    November 6, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  10. ImIrish

    Oh, for crying out loud. I voted in a church this morning, and it was a religion that is not mine. It is no big deal at all. I just look at it as another building to cast my vote in.

    November 6, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  11. Ufetcha

    Sounds like a lot of fear and pride here people.

    November 6, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  12. Ufetcha

    Yep, it's better to go vote and be intimidated by the black panthers, skin heads, people at the voting locations telling you to vote for Obama and helping you with it..... Yep, Church is a D A N G E R O U S place! Booooo!

    November 6, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • cmkc

      You are correct. Organized religion and its zealots IS dangerous.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • ImIrish

      cmkc – I'm sorry that you apparently weren't brought up in a loving, religious environment. I was fortunate enough to be, and I am accepting of ALL religions; not just mine.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • cmkc

      ImIrish, oh, but I was, Catholic school and all.... then I grew up. My problem is with all organized religions not one specifically.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • Franco

      @cmkc - You need good psychotherapy.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Irish,

      They have the appearance of being loving, until you buck their authority...

      November 6, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • That's ridiculous

      So how many Black Panthers and skinheads did you see at polling places today?

      None, of course. Nice hysterical post there, buddy.

      Churches have become political, no two ways about it. They politic from the pulpit, they put political signs up, they are political.

      Or, in other words, what would you think a conservative would feel about voting in a Planned Parenthood location?

      Black Panthers and skinheads. Really now!

      November 6, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  13. Terry

    OK i grew up in PA and my voting place was my elementary school...I now live in Colorado and i have voted in 2 churches. When i aske dpeople around here it is the norm....in PA this is CRAZY!

    November 6, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • callywag

      WOW! I live in PA and am SO thankful we're not forced to go to churches to vote! What is happening to America????

      November 6, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      This is a artifact of the fact that States separately define the voting process.

      There needs to be more uniformity inFederal elections. The fact that voting for Federal offices varies not only state to state but precinct to precinct is silly.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • Mormonism is a cult- FACT

      callywag

      WOW! I live in PA and am SO thankful we're not forced to go to churches to vote! What is happening to America????
      .
      Had to vote in a Lutheran church today. Very offended but I still voted.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • callywag

      @mormonism is a cult....having to vote in a church is NOT ok. I feel for you.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • ImIrish

      callywag – I'm sorry that you are so easily offended. People who are so easily offended should just stay home. That way, you can live in your own, little universe and pretend that you live in a bubble.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • krussell

      Well I, for one, am deeply offneded by you people who are not offended!

      November 6, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  14. Nathan

    This morning, my parents were in a voting line the length of a football field when it started to rain. The church allowed everyone to come inside and fill the pews so everyone could stay dry. Tell me, how could a public school or library, both of which are open and full of students and patrons on voting day, be able to make these accomodations? Churches make sense logistically. And church goers have to put up with things that they deem offensive every single day in this world, so if you are have to vote in a church once every couple of years, just deal with it!

    November 6, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      How about a Mosque, would you be ok voting there? And maybe you would, but I know many christians would not. We should all be able to vote in a neutral site.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Nathan,

      a better solution is to abolish polling places completely.

      Washington and Oregon have switched to all-absentee ballots.

      No lines!
      Vote in the comfort of your own home.

      It works well.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Maybe this works well, but is it efficient? And it provides less opportunity to identify fraud.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • Nathan

      I personally wouldn't care, but the question is, are mosques open to that? Many have rules, such as covering hair and taking off shoes. So people would probably have to obey their traditions and rituals just to vote. Regular churches open their doors to anyone without requiring any kind of special action, and they are generally empty on weekdays, so I guess that's what makes them a good location. And there are a lot of churches out there – I can't imagine it would be easy finding enough other public places to accomodate the number of precincts.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • Nathan

      @GOPer, I actually did vote absentee this time, although I was a little wary of voter fraud. There's something very reassuring about watching them actually feed that ballot into the machine.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
  15. Mormonism is a cult- FACT

    I didnt mind voting at a church. Gave me a chance to spit on the Jesus statute on the way out.

    November 6, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      Next time aim for my shoes. I'll give you a rag and you can shine em for me. :-)

      November 6, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Ufetcha

      Really??? Grow up.....

      November 6, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Mormonism is a cult- FACT

      I know I angered the statue and will be struck dead.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      Mormonism is a cult- FACT,,

      Keep on a digging. Pay-dirt is but a shovel's holding away! :-)

      November 6, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • BigCat

      Hey Dude save some of that spit....you're gonna need it where you're going...hahahahah
      So interresting how you think anybody cares about your lil act of defience...

      November 6, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • Mormonism is a cult- FACT

      And also got a picture of me playing with Mary's you know what in the courtyard area of the church. Very funny...cant wait to post on Facebook. So it was fun voting today.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • Mormonism is a cult- FACT

      Bigcat

      I need attention bro

      November 6, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • BigCat

      Oh thats too bad....all the action you could get was from a statue....why do I think you usually do the playing with yourself?

      November 6, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Mormonism is a cult- FACT

      lol good one

      November 6, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  16. God's Oldest Dreamer

    "Church-phobians" are a rather 'phobiotically' enthusiastic bunch aren't you?

    November 6, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • callywag

      Crazy, evangelical people like you sure are an enthusiastic bunch aren't you?

      November 6, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      Don't let evangelical people putting me in their bunches! As for my being crazy goes, I can looney with the best of 'em. :-)

      November 6, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      Don't let evangelical people "hear you" putting me in their bunches! As for my being crazy goes, I can looney with the best of 'em

      November 6, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • krussell

      The way I feel when I see you religious fanatics influencing politics is exactly the way the Germans should have felt when the Nazis were gaining power.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  17. Cindy

    Many polling places in the south are at churches. And the signs outside the church usually push a certain candidate. Even if they are within 20 ft. of the polls the local governments look the other way.

    November 6, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • VanHagar

      I call B.S. Take pictures (you imply many) and post them.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Mormonism is a cult- FACT

      Have to say I agree...here in AZ as I pulled into the church their property littered with certain canidate signs.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • BigCat

      Thats interesting I just voted at a church out here in Cali and Obama everywhere....must be a different demonimation...

      November 6, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  18. terry parenteau

    Reading these posts from the great white north i observed this from all the postings!!Grab that book quick,clench it tight,close your eyes.Things not happening,cant find any proof!!!Close you eyes and hold on tighter!!!!Why arguing with ideololigy its like banging your head on the wall!!!

    November 6, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • BigCat

      Exactly Frenchy...they just can't seem to see past that manifesto...hahahahahha

      November 6, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  19. john

    Holy Trinity Catholic church in Gainesville VA is actively campaigning against Obama. They even have one of those hate-filled lying anti-Obama videos on their church website, and the priests' homilies on sundays are campaign speeches, despite the fact there are fewer abortions when democrats are in office. Why do they have tax exempt status?

    November 6, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Franco

      You lying POS.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • cmkc

      If churches were rightfully taxed, it would solve alot of problems. And if churches were actually doing their jobs as they profess, we wouldn't have any poor and homeless folk now, would we.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • JFCanton

      I don't see the lying hate-filled anti-Obama video on their website, though there is a lot of stuff on the resources page (like apologetics credited to someone with no listed credentials) that is a little out of practice in my diocese.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • BigCat

      cmkc
      Lets tax all charities...and Churches are doing their job...the Bible clearly says we will always have poor and homeless...it is rather amussing that the Church goers are far more Charitable than non church goers....Romney v Obama...

      November 6, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • JFCanton

      If churches were taxed, they'd just punt their excess facilities... and the state would probably have MORE costs because they'd have maintenance responsibilities for land that the community won't want developed.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  20. IslandAtheist

    It's a much better use of them than spreading fairy tales.

    November 6, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • krussell

      I never really thought about a good use for a church before.
      Museums or bon fires come to mind ... depending on if they are made of stone or wood.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
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About this blog

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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.