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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.”

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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.

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. numbnut

    I vote at a Ukranian Church, but they do not post opinions on their marquee, and I appreciate that.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  2. Tom Buffington

    Well, ifthis is the case then perhaps the polling plce in our local hospital should also be closed because of the controversy over the new health care law. After all, isn't a hospital a possible setting to influence a vote depending on a canditates stand on health care? What about polling places in schools since cuts to education are a hot topic in some areas? Let's just stop treating voters as idiots, if the plethora of advertisements, mailings etc over the past six months haven't influenced a voter do you really think looking at a crucifix, Star of David etc will?

    November 6, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • dave

      Fact has nothing to do with this article. It is only intended as another way to eliminate any moral compass this country may have left. If there is no moral compass, there will be no one left to state the difference between true right and wrong.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • Clown Dentist Satan

      You are basically saying that advertising doesn't work.

      I've got news for you: it does, big time.

      Things as stupid as lawn signs are proven to work.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • mama k

      @dave – who "owns" right and wrong, dave? Moral compass?? You think we need to vote in a church to have a moral compass? Your narrow thinking is showing, dave.

      November 6, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  3. Joe from CT, not Lieberman

    Rev. Lynn, I do agree that Religion and Politics should not mix. However, sometimes the local church is one of the few places with space large enough to accommodate all the voters in a community. Given that too many schools (especially in large inner cities) require everyone go through metal detectors or get pat-downs, a church becomes a more logical location to express our freedom of choice.
    To everyone else – this time tomorrow, we MAY know who will be taking the Oath of Office on January 21 next year. In any event, the people will have spoken. Depending on where you live and what type of voting equipment is present, you may be more confident that your vote was properly recorded. Some of you, though, will be in doubt. For those in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Ohio, you will once again be inundated by candidates starting by mid-December, all looking for your support in 2016, so once again, your importance in the political scheme of things will be overblown based on your early primaries.
    Some of you will post on every blog you know about how proud or disgusted you are with those who are elected. The only thing I wish to say is if you didn't vote you have lost all credibility in your complaining about how things are, because you will be part of the problem, not part of the solution.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • V from MO

      Your assumption that churches are used when there is no other option is just not true. In the last election, I had to wait in a long narrow hall full of religious propaganda that was just a block from the city's HUGE community center that had twice the open space. Those of us that live in the bible belt have more religion in politics than other parts of the country. Even in Texas, voting was in a library or school. Missouri and other Southern states run more like a Theocracy than people in other parts of the country can accept. I am grateful that the county where I reside now has polling places that are not in churches. Pictures of dead Jesus hanging on the wall just grosses me out.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  4. mama k

    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 must have been 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.

    =================

    If you can, save some gas and waiting in lines and vote absentee.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • dave

      Seperation of church and state was never intended to a total disconnect between the two. it simply intended to prevent any church from controlling the government. Our country would be so much better now if we had not decided to make such a disconnect between the two. As we slide further down to the lowest common denominatior, you will see an end to all civility,respect and dignity. All indicators of these people have no regard for the holy value of human life.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • mama k

      So dave, should I assume that you find the 1963 Supreme Court ruling was wrong, especially in consideration that the average school class today has ~21% non-Christians students in it?

      I assure you, the key founders meant every word they wrote in our key documents, despite their own religious upbringing. Listen to how disgusted JM was in 1785 because of the fighting between Christian sects at the time:

      During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution.

      (A Memorial and Remonstrance, addressed to the Virginia General Assembly, 1785)

      November 6, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  5. Barbara Z Dick

    I could not agree more. Keep politics out of the church and the churches out of politics!!

    November 6, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      Political expressionisms may well lead one to getting a phobia toward churches and even religious ones. :-)

      November 6, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  6. David

    I can't see how voting in a church would influence anyone toward religion, voting in a school won't make you smater will it?

    November 6, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • Clown Dentist Satan

      Going to school obviously didn't make you "smater," so I guess you prove your point.

      And those Nike swooshes don't sell any shoes either.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Why is this an apt analogy? Lots of people buy Nike without endorsing Phil Knight's political positions. If they put out collection boxes at the polls, maybe...

      November 6, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • Clown Dentist Satan

      That's what's known as a "false analogy." The vast majority of Nike buyers have no clue what the CEO's politics are, but the vast majority of voters know damn well what the church's politics are.

      November 6, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  7. Mike From Texas

    Dont allow voting in schools with monumental tribute mural's of sitting presidents i.e. obama in Philly school.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  8. dave

    Do you really think your vote matters anyway? Dont you know that Obama is going to be the winner? This is all decided way before the dog and pony show that lets us feel like we matter. The campaigns are there to raise money, it is simply a way to keep us fighting one another. There is only one political party and they play both sides in order to play us.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  9. Frank

    What would Jesus do!? You know the answer!! So why lie to yourself! Why call yourself followers of Jesus!

    November 6, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  10. God's Oldest Dreamer

    Where would Life truly be if there were no churches? Anyone know or can clue me in? Uhg! Me make um fire!

    November 6, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • Bet

      Let me see if I can answer that in terms you'll understand:

      Ugh, me no makum vaccines or antibiotics because sickness come from bad spirits.

      Ugh, me no understand earth revolve around sun, not other way around.

      Ugh, me no have USA because earth flat and I fall off if go too far on ocean.

      Ugh, me no kill millions because they no worship my big spirit.

      Ugh, me no have car, agriculture, computer or internet because science is of devil.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • Willa

      Likely, we would be at least 500 years more advanced in science than we are now.

      November 6, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Um... no. The Dark Ages are vexing, but they were unavoidable because the advanced culture that Rome created was sustainable only in an empire. Christianity may have held us back in some ways (by suppressing some things), but is also uniquely responsible for Western literacy. Without Christianity, it's hard to be sure when literacy would have become common enough for science to take off... but it would almost certainly have taken much longer. You may have noticed that we have done a lot better than Asia and Africa.

      November 6, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • Bet

      Vexing? I do not think that means what you think it means.

      Religion interferes with the pursuit of knowledge because it's in its best interest to keep the flock ignorant and frightened.

      Religion has stamped out the scientific, medical, mathematical, language, art, music and literary advancements of many cultures in god's name. Perhaps one of them had a cure for a deadly disease, we'll never know thanks to religion. Many of them had written language and were literate far in advance of the church as well.

      November 6, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
  11. skinsfan

    Is this all you've got to complain about? My city votes in churchs so our schools can stay open. It's only a building. Nobody from the church was even around. How about being upset with Obama's coverup of the Libian Ambassator being murdered.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • Layla

      preach on, brother!

      November 6, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • Dan

      And CNN says, "What happened in Libya?"

      November 6, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • Willa

      Sweetheart- this is CNN, not Fox. We get it. You are angry a black man who supports gay marriage is president. You don't need to create faux controversy. This is anonymous-ish. You can be as bigoted as you want without stooping to unfounded, inaccurate claims.

      November 6, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  12. Carole

    Can't vote in schools. Most of them have so many security blocks it would be impossible. Who wants all of those strangers in the school with their kids. Many small towns don't have much but a church in them. Churches are free to use.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  13. Layla

    I had to vote in a firehall today. I felt such overwhelming pressure to wear an oversized unfashionable black jacket with neon yellow accents along with matching neon yellow hat and big rubber boots. It's unfair and I HATE IT!

    November 6, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • Nate

      I vote: Best comment of the day!!!

      November 6, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Sounds good.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • Layla was George Harrison's wife at the time

      Next election, all voting will be in Planned Parenthood locations and Democratic campaign headquarters. You know, since it has no influence, like you say.

      You okay with that?

      November 6, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  14. steve travis

    The real problem libtards have with religion is that GOD is the ultimate source of accountability. Any issue can be divided by more personal / government responsibility or less. Dont care what we are talking about, regressives want less responsibility, thats forward thinking. Voting id is one such example. Another, Libs say guns kill people not people, really, then why dont we put the guns in jail. Imagine on judgement day when a lib says , hey the gun made me do it, Im a victim of evil freedoms and evil NRA and evil capitalism. AH, dont worry libtards, hell cant be that hot can it?

    November 6, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • Andy

      Which god – Zeus?

      November 6, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • EB

      "Libtards" Really Steve? Get off of your high horse and quit judging people, you hypocrite!

      November 6, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • JFCanton

      If the guns are all in jail, sounds fine with me as long as they have really thick doors and high walls.

      It's unfortunate to pollute a good point with insults.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • Good Day America!

      That Libtard President is going to keep being president for another four libtard years!!!!

      Bwa! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!

      The Senate will remain libtard because the tea losers totally kamikazed themselves in two races.

      Bwa! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!

      It's a good day! Jesus loses, Tea Party loses, Limbaugh loses . . . good day.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • Banger

      Yeah, Heaven certainly wants people like you around.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • dave

      No one wants personal responsibility or accountability. Look how great the country has become since we embraced the (anything I want to do is ok mentality).

      November 6, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Bet

      Oh, my sweet patoot, you belong on TLC with Honey Boo Boo and that Duggar woman.

      November 6, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  15. YoSimile Sam

    Saying that voting in a church doesn't influence voter behavior is like saying the Nike swoosh on their products doesn't sell more shoes.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  16. jj

    Amen. Don't allow voting in churches

    November 6, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • Raven

      So where would they vote out in the country where large building for that many people do not exist other as churches.?

      November 6, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  17. Lindsey

    I wouldn't have any problem casting a ballot inside a church. I would feel no intimidation, no matter how hard they tried to subtly or non-subtly sway me one way or the other. There is no church on this earth that governs my brain. My brain is mine, it's inside MY head, and I am quite capable of making my own decisions, thank you very much. Mouthings of hellfire and brimstone unless I vote for one candidate or another would just cause me to laugh in the admonisher's face. Loudly.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • getmeinhere

      You seem to be so unaware of the subconscious influences at play that I have a feeling you are particularly vulnerable to them.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • JFCanton

      How is this concern for subconscious influences compatible with an objective way of looking at the world?

      November 6, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  18. southernsugar

    I voted in a church today. The carpet was really trashed out. Voting turnout has been great here.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
  19. Mohammad A Dar

    Rev. Barry W. Lynn looks like Steve Forbes with facelift!!

    November 6, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  20. damien

    I will vote in a church as long as there isn't anyone running around sprinkling people with holy water. Damn that stuff stings.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • krussell

      I've seen priests use some sort of a stick/thing to throw holy water on other people, but I've never seen one get any on their hands.
      Maybe you and the peirsts have more in common than I realized.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • YoSimile Sam

      Methinks that was a joke. Damien? The 666 child in the Omen movies? Holy water stings?

      Just MY TAKE

      November 6, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • JFCanton

      They put their hands in the holy water during baptisms.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • damien

      It burns!!!!!!

      November 6, 2012 at 4:47 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.