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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.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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.

My Take: Charting Bible’s ‘GOP’ words

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. dave

    This country once stood as a great God blessed America, now we ponder our division. The future is bleak, decay and decline of morality is breaking our once strong country. At one time immigrants came here and assimilated, desiring to be more like us. Now we watch as the fabric of our society is torn apart from the decadence of the people. One day we shall see the final result of this destructive ideololgy.

    November 6, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • Andy

      God might have blessed America for about a half a second before the early settlers starting really laying into the natives.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      dave, God = war, death, destruction

      Assimilate or die is not moral. You need a brain enema.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • sam stone

      At what point were we a "god blessed country"? When we could own other people? When women could not vote? When husbands could legally r-a-p-e their wives? Where is this moral utopia you point to?

      November 6, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • Looking at the biggest heathen on this site

      Dave, the bible states that end of days, heathens would be worse than the days of Noah's flood.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • JohnC

      not sure from your post since it avoids the voting place question. So you ARE okay with having mosques as voting places? Others may not be as enlightened which may be their fault but still I want them to feel comfortable voting.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  2. Johnny American

    I just voted in a church...its a building....there is nothing about it that changed my opinion.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • RobK

      Yes. If you are so spineless that walking into a church meeting space would make you change your vote, maybe you shouldn't be voting anyway.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Johnny, the idea that the location of where you are voting could change your opinion is absurd. But if like me, you are completely put off by having to step foot in a church, something I find repulsive, the location does matter. A lot.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • Andy

      Well, Johnny Appleseed, guess you live in a sparkly world. Good for you. It seems obvious from other posters that there are plenty of bad feelings on the issue.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • JohnC

      I doubt many would change their votes but a small but very real number of say Christians may decide to skip voting if held in a mosque. They may feel just enough uncomfortable to decide their one vote isn't important enough to go through the discomfort. They shouldn't feel this way but that's not the point.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  3. Chris

    I wonder how he feels about the Black Panthers hanging out at polling places in PA and other parts of the country.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Andy

      Completely different issue.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • Chris

      Benefits the left its not an issue??

      I don't see why voting in a church is a big issue. I could vote in a church, school, Bill Clintons House, ..... It wouldn't matter how I vote. Even with a Black Panther breathing down my neck, not changing my vote.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Looking at the biggest heathen on this site

      Chris, talk is cheap.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • Chris

      Talk is cheap...What do you mean by that?

      November 6, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  4. BuzzardFeather

    Jesus condemned the rich and powerful and sided with the poor and downtrodden. Republicans side with the rich and powerful and condemn the poor and downtrodden, yet they're the most vocal about bragging what great Christians they are and how "America needs to return to Christian values." I'm a Christian, but if that's Christian values y'all can keep 'em.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  5. Bill Parson

    And have more polling places like the one in Philly with Dear Leader's image all over it? Why do you cry foul under the guise of unfairness but refuse to report ALL unfairness?

    November 6, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • RobK

      Yes, it is much better in Philly where the Democrats are kicking out legally appointed Republican observers.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • Kris

      Excellent observation, Bill!

      November 6, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  6. JFCanton

    This is dippy. We're talking about church halls and basements here, right? Posters that may have a political bent... yeah, that's a problem. But that's fixable and I would suggest that people with common sense should have fixed it already.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • ME II

      Apparently, the two studies cited disagree with you.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Churches are not all "conservative." If people feel more "conservative" merely because they're somewhere in the vicinity of a church, then either 1) they're weak-minded fools whose contribution to the democratic process shouldn't be regarded to be worth much, or 2) they feel guilty about something and their conservativeness is an authentic decision.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • ME II

      @JFCanton,
      "1) they're weak-minded fools whose contribution to the democratic process shouldn't be regarded to be worth much"
      You apparently don't understand the concept behind "the democratic process", if you so easily discount those you consider fools. I think your own display of weak-mindedness here should also disqualify you, based on your logic anyway.

      "2) they feel guilty about something and their conservativeness is an authentic decision."
      Nice ad hominem. Try a real argument next time.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  7. RobK

    Schools, community centers, libraries, are used during the day. I used to vote in a fire station.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  8. AbusedChuechBoy

    Informed today after voting at my local grade school that the voting location was being moved to a local super Evangelical chuch. No way! After having suffered as a child from a pervert priest who asked all of the boys to check his pockets for prizes, now I have to enter one of those houses of molestation for future voting. That is so crazy! Just the sight of a christian cross makes me sick....let alone entering a church with all of those dark corners and secret places known to the priest....eck!

    November 6, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Jeff E.

      I'm sorry that happened to you but what about the people who were abused in schools in the past? There is no logic to this argument, only emotion directed by our partisan choices. To make a completely neutral location would require some giant, government-funded program to create rooms empty of color and character and of course that would offend people who don't believe in big government.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  9. Russ

    The article said: "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."

    *Cleansed* of all religious symbols? Yes, that certainly sounds *neutral.*
    Careful... your bias is sticking out from under the myth of neutrality you're wearing.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  10. ao2day

    Less imposition at these church sites you show that at the School building in Philadelphia where people were forced to using voting machines right next to a huge Mural of Bracak Obama with messages of hope and Change...

    November 6, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  11. Matt

    I agree with this wholeheartedly. I want the government to have nothing to do with the church, even if it's for mutual gains.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  12. Paul

    I'm more or less neutral on where I vote, but I think elections should be managed and controlled by the federal government, not the states. At least for national elections. It is an abomination what the GOP is doing in Ohio, PA and FL!

    November 6, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  13. Marylander

    I live in Maryland and had to vote at a church for years. As a gay atheist who grew up Jewish, I did not feel comfortable at all voting there. Of course the poll workers were nothing but accomodating, but having to visit the house of someone else's lord to vote was awkward at best. Polling places should not intimidate voters. I completely agree with this author's opinion.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • TheVocalAtheist

      Too bad you're not black on top of it, that would be classic!

      November 6, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • JFCanton

      Why is this intimidating? Why wouldn't something like a National Guard building be just as or more intimidating?

      November 6, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Al

      I can see how voting at an Army Recruiting office might be intimidating for some.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  14. JohnC

    I suspect most would be okay wherever their voting place is. But for those that think this is just anti-Christian thinking you should consider how some percentage of Christians might feel if the voting were done in a mosque or temple. Many already need convincing to vote and having the voting done where they may be uncomfortable could be enough to keep them home. Many don't want to walk into some strange place where they believe (even if totally wrong) they are not wanted.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • RobK

      I would find it interesting to vote in a mosque or synagogue. The church we vote in actually has a gym.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  15. GatorDude

    Probably good idea. If polling places were placed fairly, your polling place could potentially be located in a Church of Scientology, a Mosque, a Mormon Temple, a Buddhist Temple, a Synogogue, or equally diverse place. On the plus side, the Hare Krishnas might provide free rice and veggies when you vote. On the minus side, some radical Islamists might offer you an orange jumpsuit and blindfold when you vote. Your local elementary school would be a better bet. But, then you might vote to spend more on education. I'm thinking a large open field would work.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • spartigirl

      NOT in a school. Although it may be an eye opening lesson for some folks to see the conditions of some of our schools, WE DO NOT need the public wandering around our school buildings for any purpose. Better safe than sorry

      November 6, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • JFCanton

      My school was used for voting. They just did it on a hallway without regular classrooms. And I think the next precinct over was a school gym.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • Eduardo

      The concern about students' safety is legitimate, but that is easily addressed by not having students attend school that day, as is done in New York City.

      November 12, 2012 at 5:32 am |
  16. Rainer Braendlein

    (True) Christianity has one great advantage: It is not bigoted.

    Look at Mormons, Baptists, Muslims, Catholics and the like. They only love you if you are a member of their cult or if they want to convert you. They will never love you just because you are a human being with human dignity.

    What manifests human dignity?

    Answer: Jesus Christ died for the whole mankind, for everybody independent from belief, nationality, color, status, etc..

    Of course, someone is only a Christian, if he believes that Christ died also for him, and improves his life through Jesus' power but nevertheless even if he doesn't believe God has expressed his love to him through the sacrifice of his son. I don't have to judge my neighbour for his disbelief but I only have to focus on the fact that God offers love to my neighbour, and I also should offer love.

    My task as a Christian isn't it to convert my neighbour but to love him because God yet loved him so much that God gave his Son for him. True Christian love is independent from the conversion of the neighbour.

    Furthermore at Judgement Day one will only come through when his life has improved. Hence, I cannot insist on my creed but I will be asked how I behaved, and how I treated my fellow human beings.

    Hence, we should favour Christianity because it is the most civilized faith which promotes peace and righteousness among all people.

    http://confessingchurch.wordpress.com

    At Judgement Day God will not ask you how many times you went to Mekka or to Rome, or if you have read the Bible all the time, or if you have honored the elders of your church, etc. He only will ask you if you have loved Him and your neighbour.

    The woman of Samaria (John 4) gave the thirsty Jesus no water only because he was a Jew, and she was a believer of the Samarian faith. This woman was bigoted. Yet, Jesus forgave her, and even gave her Living Water, the Holy Spirit which made the woman a loving woman giving water to everybody.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Huebert

      Why did you run from the conversation you were having on page 4?

      November 6, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Topher

      NOT what the Bible says AT ALL.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • AvdBergism source of filthy RainerBraendleinism©

      Absurdity of Christian bigotry.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • John Connor

      The only thing I would fear on Judgement Day are the Terminators, but they are no more real than any of the religious nonsense that you just posted. That being said, if we can agree to leave voting in public buildings, I will agree to allow you to attend your church. I believe that is fair.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • Ting

      You might be able to convince a child of that, but for anyone that has actually read the Bible, they know that your god is anything but loving.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • vt

      True religion of any kind is not bigoted. It is the extremists/fundamentalists in each of these religions, Christianity included, that are. It is a slippery slope from the sense of superiority about one's religion to bigotry and is the cause of so much suffering in this world.

      I fully agree with the author about the problem with voting in a church, temple, mosque or any other religious place of worship.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  17. HJA

    @Guy
    Nice try......I don't believe you. With the monitors at the polls they would put a stop to that real fast.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  18. Apple Bush

    I am fearful of churches. Call it a phobia I guess. Creeps me out. I am not comfortable so why am I forced to go there?

    November 6, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • Ting

      It's okay. They are no longer allowed to burn people.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Apple Bush

      Ting, be that as it may, churches freak me out. It is not fair to force people to go in those kinds of places.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Votermom

      I'm afraid of public schools! Never could use the restroom because in my day all the smokers filled it with smoke and my asthma could not tolerate it...now the classrooms are being filled with agendas..even scarier. Churches have only one agenda, your soul..not your vote.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Apple Bush

      @Votermom

      People never smoked in church? Liar.

      Churches don't have a political agenda? Liar.

      Republican = Liar.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • Ting

      I agree totally. It shouldn't be there. Those that have too should proudly wear their "This is what an atheist looks like" t-shirts.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Or Possibly

      O.k. We'll call it a phobia...i.e., an irrational fear. Quite being irrational. There. You're cured. Now go vote you cry baby.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • Apple Bush

      @Or Possibly

      I will and I do. However it is not fair. It is wrong. It should be changed.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Or Possibly

      Apple...do you have any idea how you are coming across? Put on your big boy (or girl) pants and get over it. "Its not fair"? My heart aches for you (not).

      November 6, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      @Or Possibly

      I don't care how I am "coming off". I have an opinion. I find churches repulsive and it is not fair to force people to make that kind of choice. Your opinion of me is quite irrelevent.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      @Or possibly, Apple's opinion is just as valid as yours or anyone else's. If others didn't feel that churches should be excluded as polling sites, then this article wouldn't have been written at all.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Or Possibly

      @Tom...I'm not saying Apple's opinion is invalid or that she doesn't have a right to it or that, from her perspective, it isn't accurate. I'm saying Apple is a cry baby.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • Ann

      Apple, you should vote by absentee ballot if it bothers you that much. Don't let it stop you from voting.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  19. smartaz

    They could place my ballot box in the Oval office or Romney's living room and it wouldn't change my vote at all.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  20. Guy

    So it was more neutral for me to vote at a public school but have to walk between 2 people handing out Democratic voting guides on my way in?

    November 6, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • Apple Bush

      For me the issue has nothing to do with changing my vote or people handing out guides. I just don't won't to go in the church, it is not fair to me.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Votermom

      Just saw a photo of a huge painting mural of Obama in a public school...funny, I bet they did not paint Bush on that wall four years ago...the public school system is much more political than any church. I've been going to church for 45 years...all I hear is the Word...not rhetoric.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Apple Bush

      @Votermom

      "I bet they did not....."

      You don't know they didn't, but you feel it is fine to go ahead and just put that out there. Typical Republican liar.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Guy, if there were no Republican folks handing out flyers, then that's THEIR fault. All polling places allow ALL parties to hand out literature outside polling places.

      As for votermom, the public schools lean Democratic because the Republicans would love to gut them.

      I'm sure you would, too.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Apple Bush

      Tom Tom's right. Education and GOP don't mix.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Topher

      Apple Bush
      Don't worry. You LIKELY won't catch on fire when you step inside. :)

      November 6, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • Apple Bush

      Topher, it has nothing to do with that. It is not a joke to me. Forcing people into churches is just wrong. I have to cross the street when I am walking by a church. I get the heeby jeebies really bad.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • Topher

      Apple Bush

      Wow, dude. I feel bad for you and I don't mean that to sound demeaning. Sorry if you've explained this elsewhere, but why are you so fearful of churches?

      November 6, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      @Topher

      I just find churches repulsive. When I go in one I become physically ill. I guess it is a phobia but I shouldn't be forced to go in one of those awful places. In my opinion.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • Topher

      You can always vote early through the mail or at your local city hall.

      Did you have a bad experience in one as a kid or something?

      November 6, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      @Topher

      The point is I should not have to change the way I vote. Then it becomes exclusionary and that is not fair or democratic. There MANY reasons, both personal and historical. But mostly it is just a feeling of dread. Evil. don't like it

      November 6, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • Topher

      For me (as a Christian) voting in church is a non-issue for me. If no one ever voted in a church again, I wouldn't care. Is it a matter of the building or the religion it houses?

      November 6, 2012 at 12:27 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.