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.
A local Democratic candidate nicely planted a campaign sign on a church's lawn...without asking for permission.
And God didn't smite it with his lightning?
You are missing the point.
As an Atheist who has had to vote in a church before I totally agree with the author.
I'm for removing their tax exempt status too while we're at it.
JAB62.........God don't need your tax exempt status. He'll shut you down like NY.
IMHO if they use the pulpit to push their religious beliefs on to the election then they should not be exempted from taxes. If they want to maintain it then stay out of politics. Since that's not likely possible to enforce then just roll back the tax exemptions (and tax breaks for charitable contributions) and be done with it.
So can ye count on your vote for removing the tax exempt status of churches?
You are forgetting, however, that the alternative is for them to operate entirely like a business and by employing parishoners, etc. not declare a profit. They would forfeit some of their contributions from those wealthy who use them as a tax writeoff... but how much is not predictable, and the bulk of their contributors probably fall under the standard deduction.
To people clamoring for online voting. I realize some countries have managed it, but realize that in a US election, this will be targeted by every hacker in every country on the planet. It just isn't a risk we want to take with something this high profile and important.
David Ellis.........you're right and Sandy shot that idea down in NY.
It is time to move voting into the 21st century.
Unless you use nothing but cash, almost every one of your financial transactions is online and even if you use cash most of them are still online, just not traced to you. You really think that hackers are more interested in an election than in your money?
In any case paper absentee ballots work just fine.
This guy complaing about voting in a church because he feels uncomfortable. Well then Im uncofrtable voting in a school full of union thugs that may be patrolling the parkinglot looking for cars that have conservative stickers on them.
And just where is that occurring, Jim?
So these thugs...are they gonna roll you if they see a Romney bumper sticker?
Education is your friend.
Have you ever seen a teachers union meting? It's a bunch of middle age married women, not many thugs among them.
Apparently, Jim's third-grade teacher scarred him for life!
Those Union thugs are called "teachers". Unfortunately you did pay enough attention to them when you were in school
Well they'd be in a lot of trouble for that... as they should be in their respective classrooms teaching during the day. And, anyone's allowed to demonstrate outside a designated radius, usually the front door, of a polling place. Whether church or school or library, people from either side could be anywhere. This is about the actual polling room where you're voting, with a potential cross over your head.
I am against everything churches stand for. Going into a church, smelling the air, feeling the dead sad lack of intelligence, hearing the echos of past abuses and current mindlessness and violence. All religions are terrifying. Churches are repulsives and make me physically ill. So why should I be forced to go in one. Particulary when I am voting? The very thing should have the evil hand or religion excluded from it.
One day we will be voting for an atheist and he or she will win. Weill I be standing in house of pain when I cast the vote?
Apple Bush.......a little angry now aren't we.
Do you have a problem with Christ?
Sure I am. It is a sign of intelligence.
Yeah i hear ya i feel the same way walking into a school to vote with all the abuse from teh past that has happened, just creeps me out.. Oh and Apple then dont go into one to vote, no one is forcing you , vote absentte if it creeps you out that much, which I doubt it does
Church A: "Love your Neighbor"; Apple's response: I'm against that
Church B: "We're going to hold a food drive this week"; Apple's response: I'm against that
Church C: "We're going to take a special offering today–100% goes to Sandy relief fund"; Apple's response: I'm against that
I'm fond of Jesus, but not so much of Christ. Jesus was a brilliant ethical teacher, Christ is a divisive figure.
Churches are just another building to me. I walk in and vote...never notice anything but the voting booths.
Interesting. How so?
It is a sign of intelligence.
I wouldn't exactly call your irrational view of churches a sign of intelligence. Regardless of what happened to you in the past, you can’t paint every church with the same brush. An intelligent person would be able to rationalize that and overcome. Instead you chose to dwell on, and cry about it to the whole world.
great Idea because nothing ever goes wrong on the internet.
Do you own a bank account?
Do you have automatic payroll deposit?
Do you use a debit or credit card?
Yeah, internet security is impossible.
Churches volunteer to be used as polling places as a recruitment strategy. Only public buildings should be used.
I have never had a member of any church approach me while voting or standing in line to vote. In fact in my town it is a boring process, nobody in line even talk much about the weather. Its just that nobody has ever interfered with me while voting anywhere and I have been voting since Jimmy Carter ran for president, so that's a few elections
I guess it would be better to vote in a building "guarded" by Black Panthers with a giant Obama mural on the wall next to the voting booth? (see Philadelphia)
I do not care for this crap in my polling place.
Who says voting in a church should make you uncomfortable? Hmm, I don't know, was it maybe, hmm .... SATAN!?!
Fundiot with blinders on = Mac
That's my line
C'mon. Is this the most important thing you have to worry about?
The polling place does not matter at all, as long as it is secure and the law regarding campaigning at a polling place is enforced. I do understand why it is worrisome to some people but think about it, the church in this instance is simply trying to be a good neighbor. It may be one of the few things all year long they do right. I do think that many churches should loose their tax except status. Namely churches that talk about political rather than spiritual issues. Of course they are free to do as they please this is America, but they are not free to dodge taxes. Mega churches in particular are more anout generating income that providing spiritual help to people.
Jules, you are wrong. The church has no place in this process. There should never be any circu.mstanct that forces someone into one of those repulsive churches against their will. It is wrong.
Apple Bush.........you're not forced. Don't vote!
Wow Atheist Hunter, so you think that creating exemptions in a process that should be democratic to the point of being forced not to vote is good? Wow Atheist Hunter.
There is a better solution.
Eliminate polling places.
Inst;tute an alterative system using the internet or absentee paper ballots.
Some states have already abandoned polling all together. Washington and Oregon are absentee vote only.
No requirement to have to find polling stations, neutral or otherwise
No requirement for polling station volunteers
No harrassment from electioneers outside the polling station
No pressure to vote quickly from people behind you in line
No impact on the work day for voters, students etc
No impact on the elderly or people with mobility issues who struggle to get to the polls
Simpler logistics – they are the same for everyone
Convience: vote whenever you feel like it before election day.
Comfort: sit down with the ballot and spread out the election material and make your choice at your own pace
Consistency in vote tallying – none of this nonsense where equipment varies from precinct to precinct
No issues with funky ballots (the infamous Florida butterfly ballot of 2000)
No hanging chads!
The only objections to this system are related to ballot secrecy with busybody spouses.
Votes cast late on election day by mail might take longer to process (though no longer than existing absentee votes)
I never thought of that. That is a great Idea.
it works really well in Washington and Oregon. They've been doing it for years now.
This is a good solution on many levels. Just think of the auto fuel that would be saved.
You do realize that absentee ballots are most vunerable to individual voter fraud, although individual voter fraud is rare & absentee voting certainly has its advantages. This fact has been ignored by most efforts to establish voter ID laws, which focus more on "purging voter roles" and requiring certain forms of government ID that some voting demographics are more likely to have than others.
Yes, absentee balloting is more sensitive to voter fraud than in person voting, which as you point out is minimal anyway.
It was not enough of a risk for Washington and Oregon not to move forward.
I voted in a church, didn't mind but know others that did. How would some religious folks feel about voting in a pub?
That is about the same feeling non-religious folks might feel about going to a church.
They might as well make me vote in a mental home, old folks home, prison, sewage plant, etc. All would be better than a church in my opinion.
I don't want to speak for all Christians, but I wouldn't care if I had to vote in a pub. Or a synagogue or anywhere else. Of course, you might then offend recovering alcoholics ...
I'd vote in a pub. I'd vote in a church. I'd vote with a fox. I'd vote in a box. As long as it is clean and safe, just go vote and quite the complaining. Far too many thin skinned people (both sides) around here.
I have heard that in 'old west' years the local bar was not only for drinking purposes it became the neighborhood church and courthouse. Could be just a rumor though.
I think, for the 2014 mid-term elections, that mosques should be used as polling places. Now THAT would be a popcorn-worthy show, wouldn't it? The xians would go bat$**t crazy. LOL
Bring it on. I'm not afraid of mosques.
For xians, it has nothing to do with fear. It's all about the symbolism. It would be the top xian/wingnut issue for months, proclaiming the end times have arrived.
I don't think it would be Christians having issues about voting in a Mosque, more likely it would be people in the service, or veterans, or firefighters, or police officers that still have vivid memories of 9/11 that would have an issue with voting in a Mosque.
But go ahead, make Christians the "fall guy". Blame the churches and Christ for all the evils of the world, we know you will, He told us you will so it is not big news to us.
You obviously don't watch any of the lunatic TV xians like Jack Van Impe, John Hagee, Paul Crouch, Jay Sekulow, Hal Lindsey, Jimmy Swaggart, ad nauseam. You should try to have a rational conversation with these morons' followers. It can't be done.
"There ain't no jesus gonna come from the sky.
Now that I found out, I know I can cry." – John Lennon
Imagine No Religion
You're right, I don't watch those guys. I concentrate mainly on helping out in the community and in other countries. Not much time for TV preachin'.
Well, it's these TV preachers (and several local ones) who made me realize all religions are fairy tales and human mind control tools.
BTW, xians don't have a corner on the market in helping out other people. We atheists are community-conscious, too. I, and many others, donate time and money to organizations dedicated to helping others.
blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah!
Been Hitch slapped today?
Finally figured out how to spell "atheist," did you?
No, finally learned how to speak it!
wow.... quite the intelligent post... that's kinda what I get when I read the babble..... blah blah blah blah – mythology – blah – lie – blah blah blah – contradiction... etc etc..
This same argument can be used no matter the building. Maybe we should have the voting booths set up in the middle of a field. I'm confused, are you telling me that being in a church building will cause someone to change their vote? What a crock. These people must believe in dead poloticians haunting voting places.
I think it is more likely that people who would otherwise vote are turned off by the experience of entering "enemy territory". Whether it is a church festooned with pro-republican propoganda or a community center covered with pro-Obama hope'n'change slogans, I think it may drive opposite party voter turnout down.
Abolish polling places altogether.
Replace polling with absentee or internet voting.
If you're in California, you can't hold voting in the middle of a field this year because it might remind people voting on the genetic food labeling proposition of what nature looks like!
If there ever was anything that should be kept secular in the U.S. in every sense of the word, including location, it is the process of voting. It was most likely very intimidating for people to vote around the time of our founding, because different Christian sects were fighting with one another. People were hanging Quakers in Massachusetts; Anglicans were persecuting Baptists in Virginia and other places. This infuriated the key founders of our government, and so they went to work right away to make the 1st Amendment to the Constitution to address the issue of separation of church and state.
The 1st Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, but through its Establishment Clause, prohibits the establishment of a state religion and over-influence of religion on government. The 1963 Supreme Court case regarding mandated Bible readings in public schools (ruled unconstitutional) is an example of the application of the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment. It is for the benefit of all that these measures are still in place today. I would argue for the same reason, voting should not take place is 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.
Being a bit 'religiophobic' are we?
typo correction – end of my 3rd paragraph: " in houses of worship."
@dreamer: It doesn't have anything to do with 'religophobic'. It's about following the law.
If the founders didn't have the insight to see that such separation was necessary (and it was immediately necessary for them), then the fighting between different Christian sects probably would have weakened our fledgling country to the point that the Brits might have taken it back. Then we would never have had Mormonism, and no Billy Graham and no spread of Catholicism, etc. As I said it became apparent to them that it would be to everyone's benefit to establish the separation and adhere to it as much as possible.
Well said mama k.
The 'divisioning' and 'separations' of king-to-pawns stylization are but proving out to be many political/religious/social ploys ever to be maneuvering for sound positionings upon a 'marked-for-life' board.
Let Us Love,
I agree that voting in a church could cause some intimidation (though, any polling location that is "festooned" with political signs seems to me to be in violation of electioneering laws prohibiting such things). Of course, since teachers' unions also are very political, we should not hold voting in schools, either.
FUnny you bring that up.....just saw a story about a polling location at a school in Philly that has a giant mural of Barak Obama on the wall right behind the polling stations http://www.foxnews.com
So churches want to give back to the community and do something good for the community, and people are complaining. This is a lose-lose situation, anything a church does is going to be criticized by people that hate religion just because they are so twisted by their hatred that they can't see any goodness that is trying to be offered out. This guy is whining and his argument is so flawed and full of holes that you can drive a tanker truck through it.
Through the millennia, religion has done more harm than good. If you can’t see that then you’re one of its victims. We don’t criticize religion out of hatred as you believe. We criticize it because it is all a bunch of lies.
Chad – my eyes are very much opened and I am not a "victim" of anything. Those people that are so vehement against religions are just as closed minded as the Christians you are complaining about. In any organization there are going to be people who purposely abuse their power to get what they want, no organization is free of that, which is a shame. However to say that there has been more bad then good done by Christians over the ages means that you are totally discounting and devaluing the good that HAS been done. Whether it is starting orphanages in a third world country, building sewer facilities, drilling wells, feeding and educating the poor, there is a lot of GOOD that you are discounting with your statement.
I've lived on both sides of this issue. I was raised as an Atheist and became a Christian later in life, I have also been to third world countries and participated in the above mentioned activities. So when you say that what we do causes more harm them good, I will completely disagree with you.
Neutrality is a myth. I voted in a public elementary school gym, with anti-smoking posters hung up right behind me and there was a proposition on the ballot to increase the smoking tax. Another proposition was to increase funding for libraries, and the library was right across the street. Finally, there was a proposition to increase taxes to fund public schools, and I was in one. It would be impossible to account for all these things and its asinine to argue that churches shouldn't be used because they are likely opposed to a few of the possible issues on the ballot while the supposed "neutral" locations aren't.
I guess athiests are so easily influenced and uncertain of their convictions that the building they vote in influences them.
This is not about atheists. This is about the guilt trip experienced by infrequent church attendees who are not *very* religious and feel guilty about it.
One solution here might be to temporarily federalize all polling places, much like people can be deputized as marshalls. This would serve a couple of purposese: The federal government can mandate that all references to religion be covered or removed inside the room; and if there were the unlikely event of violence in the polling place, it would be procecuted as a crime on federal property. Church social halls offer large indoor spaces needed for crowds and long lines, much like the one I stood in this morning.
Abolish polling places.
We need to bring elections into the 21st century.
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.