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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.

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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.

- CNN Belief Blog

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

soundoff (1,507 Responses)
  1. Kevin

    Are schools really that much better read this http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2012/11/06/judge-issuing-order-to-reinstate-booted-philadelphia-election-officials/

    November 6, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  2. Mark

    Many small towns do not have that many public places to vote, except maybe a VFW hall, but then someone will say we are supporting war. I guess towns could open up the bars. Free drinks, get everyone liquored up, then lead them over to a voting booth ("Ma'am, this is not a powder room. Please!")

    November 6, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  3. Get a job Hippies

    Ok then any polling at the "West Side Democratic Club" in South Bend Indiana should be banned as well. And yes the mural of obama should have been covered because he was on the ballot. Jesus wasn't on my ballot that i remember this morning. And as for obama being buddy buddy with religion he was more than happy to accept an honorary degree from the bastion of Catholocism the University of Notre Dame. obama and his ilk should come with syrup they waffle so much.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  4. CJ

    My polling place is in the lobby of a Methodist church. The last time I was there (last election) the only religious (or political) anything I saw, other than you know, the structure of the building itself, was a poster for a special event that the church was hosting a couple weeks later. Which was located on the sign at the end of the driveway. And several of our local yellow-and-black corrugated plastic "Polling place" directional signs.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • CJ

      Before the last time I moved, it was a Southern Baptist church. Same deal; the polling place was in the social hall, not the worship space. And when i was in high school, there was one at the school, again in the lobby, not a worship space. (This was a Catholic school.)

      November 6, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  5. W247

    Isn't there anything else he should be doing instead of rabble rousing over something that is really a non-issue for most people?

    November 6, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • That's ridiculous

      What would you think of voting in a Planned Parenthood location?

      November 6, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • W247

      No problem at all. I know what I believe in, I am mature enough to have my own opinions and mature enough to understand that other people have their own opinions. What happened to respecting other peoples opinions?

      November 6, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  6. Kayla

    Perhaps we should be more concerned that people are showing up at the polls on election day STILL undecided. If they haven't done their homework or taken time to care in the weeks and months leading up to election, then we can't really hold some facility responsible for swaying their opinion.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      Voting is kinda like a fountain's waters sprouting from its' middle straight up and coming down into one pool to meander to this pool's edge falling into a second pool and doing the same to the last and final pool and finally caught up to once again repeat in a never ending cycle of unending desperation.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • ME II

      Indecision is not necessarily an indication of a lack of information nor a lack of due diligence. It can be argued that none of the candidates is a very good choice.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  7. FajitaBob

    Geez, you anti-religious types are an intolerant bunch!

    November 6, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • Marcus

      Bingo!

      November 6, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • Darryl Phillips

      I would echo a reply above, how would many religious people feel about voting in a Planned Parenthood building? Or maybe even a saloon? We should all be able to vote on neutral ground.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • AnthonyT

      The local Church of Satan will be happy to host next cycle's elections in your area.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  8. FajitaBob

    Relax, people. Just because you go into a church does not necessarily mean you will burst into flames. I can understand your concern, though.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • Darryl Phillips

      And just because you voted in a saloon doesn't mean you will get drunk. Nonetheless, there are voters who would object to a saloon. Likewise a church.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  9. matt3579

    "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."

    But apparently Mr. Lynn feels its okay for voting to take place at schools in Philadelphia with murals of Barack Obama on the walls directly behind the booths.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • Darryl Phillips

      That may well be true in Philadelphia but I believe it is counterbalanced by right-wing bias in some places too.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  10. Apple Bush

    It is not ok to make people go into churches to vote. Voting should be 100% separate from religion. Personally I have a phobia about going into churches. My own personal issues with it would be satisfied by the sensible conclusion of the practice of polling in churches.

    To be honest, I don't want to be on the same side of the street as a church. Ewww.

    They creep me out to the point of being physically ill. I have on more than one occasion crossed the street to avoid walking to close to a church. The smells, the textures, the vibe, the music and the promise of lies and cult activities. It all feels so wrong, like a nightmare. I don't feel that I should be forced to vote in such a repulsive place. I would rather vote in the sewer.

    Would you eat food that makes you gag? Nor would I. Churches are physically repellent to me in the same way.

    Not only do I not have a sensible atheist to vote for, I also have to vote for a religious loon IN a church!

    November 6, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • fred

      You've been kicking the same dead horse all day. What are you looking to accomplish? You're trolling as hard as "Hindu Hate", and "Atheism is...." Go for a walk or somthing dude.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • CJ

      You're not forced to. You can vote by mail, and in most jurisdictions, you can vote early at an alternate location.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • bikerchick777

      Well considering that both presidential candidates identify themselves as christians, with Barack Obama being an evangelical christian, how do you reconcile who you vote for?

      November 6, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  11. Stan

    Yeah but Barry Lynn is an A S S. That is one good reason to not pay attention to anything he says. Just sayin...

    November 6, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  12. ArdDruid

    I just voted and my polling location is in the basement of a church, I saw no religous items, no political items, nothing except the sign in sheets and voting booths. It still made me uneasy though because I am no fan of religion.

    November 6, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  13. ElectionOfficial

    I fully agree: let's use public facilities as voting and polling stations. It simply keeps thing nice and tidy.
    In addition: let's tax those churches who make political statements one way or other.
    Mr Irish: in my state Oklahoma you only have to watch religious TV stations and unless you're blind / deaf you will hear how they guide voters to cast ballots in a certain conservative direction / party.

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

    Could not agree more that churches should not be used as polling places. Imagine walking into a polling place and finding a closed circuit TV over the door flashing the words, "Please pray first and then vote." That is what I found at my polling place at a church in Missouri.

    November 6, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • FajitaBob

      dang hippies have ruined the country.

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

      So? You are free to ignore it.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • Yeah

      The law forbids such displays within a certain distance of polling places. Sorry, but churches all over are breaking laws today.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Cite the law? A web search does not readily yield one.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • Yeah

      Try googling "law preventing signs near polling places." You will find that most if not all states prohibit it.

      What the hell did you google? That could not have been easier!

      November 6, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • notachance

      Are you the guy I saw that looked dazed and real confused?

      November 6, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • notachance

      Sorry Old_Hippie; that was obama I saw he making up his mind who to vote for.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • JFCanton

      There are laws governing political signs advocating specific candidates, not against religious displays.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  15. jgttrey

    The same criticisms can be made of most polling places. We have a school bond referendum. A polling place in a school (either run down or brand new) would, if the author is correct, skew the results far more efficiently. Would a community center be any better for the author's jurisdictions's referendum on immigrant rights?

    I'm not saying this is a made up issue or there isn't SOME validity, but at some point you have to let go of the notion that we can so perfectly set up the system that the "soft" voter is not swayed. The priority is on getting people to vote and making voting easy, not worrying about the effect of the Force on the weak-minded.

    Churches are typically located in areas that have good access to the community and good parking – and they are not usually in heavy use during the week, unlike a school or community center. In short, they make sense. We have bigger things to worry about.

    November 6, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  16. Robbie

    So, Mr. Lynn, if you've been in an accident and you're bleeding to death and the nearest hospital is affiliated with a Christian denomination, are you going to refuse to go in?

    November 6, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • Steve

      Because bleeding to death and voting are such similar "soft sway" activities? Really?

      November 6, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • AnthonyT

      Yes, because bleeding to death and needing the nearest hospital is exactly like being subtly influenced in your views by a Church. Excellent comparison! Five stars!

      November 6, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  17. Ron

    Churches DO push their agenda on their churchgoers. You wrote that it's illegal but they do it. "Do we want 4 more years of the same?" shouts the man of God... "NO" chants the crowd.
    The church needs to stay the HELL out of politics and it's sad that they can manipulate so many idiots.

    November 6, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • ImIrish

      So, you're so easily swayed that you can't think for yourself and vote the way you want to?

      I have some swampland in Florida I'd like to sell you.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  18. Topher

    It has nothing to do with knowing who you vote for when you go into the booth. I don't need to be FORCED to go into a church because that's where the voting booths are.

    November 6, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • FajitaBob

      Good, then don't go. Typical lib: they get something for free (in this case, the use of the facility), and they still complain.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • AnthonyT

      Perhaps you would better understand the discomfort if your local Church of Satan or Scientology handles voting next time. Some people don't like attending an unwanted religious space, even if it's "free."

      November 6, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  19. JJC

    For all those saying that it does not matter, and that church propoganda shouldn't sway your vote, and that this is stupid.... Well, the republicans today asked that a mural of the President be covered at a school that is being used for voting, becuase the mural (which is always there) violates election law. Pot calling the kettle black? A simple picture of the current president at a school is enough to get the republicans crying foul. But churches can display anything they want and this is not a violation? Give me a break. Practice what you preach people.

    November 6, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • FajitaBob

      jjc: why is there a mural of that criminal in a school in the first place?

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

      Your not very smart are you; what an idiot post!!!

      November 6, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • W247

      JJC: The church is not a candidate on the ballot, where the President is. It is violating election laws. Where on the ballot do you see "Jesus Christ" listed as a candidate?

      November 6, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
  20. ImIrish

    Yeah, I'm not buying that the Catholic Church was campaigning against Obama. I got to church every week, am middle-aged, and not one priest has EVER told us how to vote.

    November 6, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • Steve

      No where in the article did the author say the Catholic Church was campaigning against Obama, or that priests were telling people how to vote! Did you even read the article?

      November 6, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • Kevin

      The idea that your singular data point is representative of anything – at all – is indicative of a frightening lack of critical thinking and understanding. Logically speaking what you're doing is exactly the same as saying "my mother had two boys, therefore all mothers have only two boys, so where the hell do all these girls keep coming from?"

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

      It's not a singular data point. It's normal. If you poll 100 randomly selected American Catholics, at least 80 of them are going to report no political direction from their priests. And the other 20 are going to split... probably not evenly at this time, but Obama or his subordinates partially chose that by picking the fights that they picked in an election year.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • Nick-o

      Come to Kentucky, buddy. You'll see Anti-Obama language on giant light-up signs in front of Baptist churches. I shi* you not

      November 6, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Would not be surprised at all that Baptist churches would be doing this. As someone noted, yeah, Rev. Lynn did not mention Catholicism here... but it is not uncommon for him to do so. It is a little weird that the director of this organization is located in a state where separation of church and state is not a practical problem, instead of somewhere like KY or OK.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
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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.