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)
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  3. John

    The church where I cast my ballot during the primary election had Bibles stacked up on a table at the entrance.

    November 29, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  4. Karin

    Most polling places where I live are either churches or school gymnasiums. So far, I have not had to go to a church to vote, thank goodness. However, if a church was my only venue, I would be very disappointed.

    November 13, 2012 at 2:39 am |
  5. Mary

    This has always bothered me, too. The polling place I worked at this past election was a Christian church, and it was mildly uncomfortable for me to walk in there. Especially in today's economy, when there are so many malls – either contained malls or strip malls – with vacant shops, and other vacant commercial buildings. Why not set up a system whereby the owners of said mall and commercial buildings get a small tax deduction for agreeing to host a polling place on election days?

    November 12, 2012 at 1:37 am |
  6. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Churches should be allowed as poling places. And the Presidential election result should be announced by a puff of smoke out of the chimney 😉

    November 10, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  7. ronvan

    HYPOCRITES!!: Religion & Politics is like oil and water! Separation between church and state? Not any more! DEFINE where you voted at a church? I voted at a church, BUT, it was in their gym, and had NO religious items in it! NO, I do not support that if you vote at a church they should REMOVE any religious items! Maybe cover them up but not remove! NO, I do not vote based on someone's religion! I vote based on how I feel the person could HELP! YES, I would vote for a law that would remove a church's tax exemption for preaching personal political agenda's, etc.. I go to church to be refreshed, motivated, and to hear a GOOD sermon, NOT political agenda's! YES, I would vote for an atheist, IF I thought they were the best person! Lets keep religion where it belongs! And YES, I disapprove, TOTALLY, of all these so called "do gooders" that want to infringe, intimidate, and even try to force THEIR personal agenda's on me!

    November 8, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  8. GodFreeNow

    Are the christians out here willing to acknowledge that Obama winning a 2nd term is god's will?

    November 7, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • End Religion

      no, this is the part where us evil people have free will to vote against the godly candidate.

      November 7, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
  9. Happy Dance

    Our poll was at a church. I voted there in the primary and was not offended by it. They had an auditorium that easily held ten machines, no one threw a bible at me, no biggie. For this general election I voted early at the library and it was no different than voting at the church.

    November 7, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • MikeA

      I voted in a church and somebody DID throw a bible at me, figuratively speaking. As I was leaving, a church member approached me with printed materials and began proselytizing. I complained to the Board of Elections. I still haven't received a response, or even an acknowledgement from the board, but I guess since that board happens to be the Palm Beach County, FL board, I shouldn't be surprised.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  10. Christianity is a form of mental illness- FACT

    I found the cross to be repulsive at best. If our polling place is going to be in a church next time, I will opt to mail in my ballot. As a free American I should not have ot subjected to a symbol of hate, ignorance and mental illness.

    November 7, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • Bob

      To millions, the cross is a symbol of love. You have decided that for you, it is a symbol of hate, ignorance, and mental illness. Is it up to society to remove everything that someone may find to be such a symbol?

      (It is a fact that "Christianity is a form of mental illness" is not a fact, but only your opinion.)

      November 7, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      to me the crucifix is a symbol of bigotry, suffering, censorship and tyranny. so i under your concerns

      November 7, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • jimmy

      The only time a cross looks good is hanging on a chain between a girl's enormous rack. If I was juhaysus on that cross, I'd be gettin wood!

      November 7, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • End Religion

      sorry bob...

      November 7, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
    • Justin

      "I found the cross to be repulsive at best. If our polling place is going to be in a church next time, I will OPT IN TO MAIL MY BALLOT. As a free American I should not have ot subjected to a symbol of hate, ignorance and mental illness."

      –Well, looks like this guy brought up an issue and then shut it down in the middle of his own sentence.

      November 8, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • phatguts

      I'm the same. To me the cross is a symbol for a slow and agonizing death – never love.

      November 9, 2012 at 5:02 am |
  11. Ben Moushon

    Reblogged this on Thinking & Driving and commented:
    Every polling station I drove by seemed to be a church. And while I agree that it's not the most appropriate place, what is the alternative? Close libraries, schools, and fire stations on election days?

    November 7, 2012 at 7:20 am |
    • End Religion

      Why would you need to close a library for this? I suppose it depends on the library. But yes, close schools. Maryland closes its schools for election day. Before someone chimes in, Maryland public school were just voted #1 for the 4th time, so 1 day off school isn't going to negatively impact anyone. Aside from that, even if it did have some slight negative impact, voting is the most important aspect of our citizenship and should be treated as such.

      November 7, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • Megan

      I've voted at schools several times, and none of them were closed. The school library was used in each instance. I've also voted in community centers, apartment lobbies, and even a neighbor's garage. I've only had to wait more than 5 minutes once – about half an hour in the apartment lobby.

      November 7, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • End Religion

      Megan, for schools that had not closed, I believe there was some concern over violence and so apparently some school poling places were moved to churches. In a perfect world having all those strangers around students doesn't seem to be too big of an issue, but we're far from that, and when it comes to kids it is better safe than sorry. First, I don't see why giving the kids off 1 day would be a big deal, and second voting shouldn't even be on Tuesday any more anyway, which would negate the entire issue with using schools which could be used on a weekend.

      November 7, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
    • Io

      Vote at McDonalds, there's one on every corner

      November 7, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
    • Graham

      You could hold elections on a weekend.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • Eduardo

      Election day is not a school day in New York City, either, which allows those buildings to be used as polling places and there's no need to use churches or any other non-government buildings. Upon moving to Miami I was stunned to find that my designated polling place was a church. I guess the separation of church and state is not valued as much down here. The area where the voting took place was fairly neutral, but it was a small room with an inefficient bottleneck. School auditoriums and gyms make much better polling sites.

      November 12, 2012 at 3:39 am |
  12. Wowsie Wow!

    Wow! Not only did Romney lose and the Senate went Democrat by a larger than expected margin, but two states legalized recreational pot and and two others legalized gay marriage.

    Tea Party Jesus really got his butt kicked!

    November 7, 2012 at 2:46 am |
    • End Religion

      Maybe the Tea Party should consider changing name to Pot Party and focus on legalizing marijuana. They'd get more traction that way.

      November 7, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  13. Dianna Campbell

    I voted at a church today. It was 7pm when I arrived. It was an LDS church. This church had a lot of cars in front of it and a long line of voters waiting to cast their ballots. No one was rude, no one tried to convert me to their religious or political beliefs. There was no bishop or priest or whatever they have for their spiritual leaders trying to convert me. The people manning the polls had been there since 6am. They were volunteers and still cheerful and friendly. No one paid them. The coffee was free. The electricity was free. The purpose of voting at a church or a school or a mall or even a auto repair garage (yes, they voted there in some of our smaller towns) is simply a conveniently located and large area for voting machines or booths for Americans to cast their vote. America has become so thin skinned about other people's opinions or beliefs that we cannot even allow ourselves to do the most mundane and simple things , albeit an important thing such as voting, without worrying about offending someone. If a grocery store had a cross or some other symbol of their creed displayed would you drive to the other side of town to buy your milk? Sometimes things just make sense because it works and it's convenient. Not because someone is trying to convert you or cause you to think or believe their way. If you are that easily swayed or offended that is your own problem. Go vote, buy your groceries or underwear because it's the best place to do so and go home. Simple. No need to make a mountain out of a mole hill. So many more important issues and things to be concerned about. Come on! All of you. Get over yourself.

    November 7, 2012 at 1:44 am |
    • mirror mirror

      Would you be so open-minded about voting at the neighborhood Planned Parenthood clinic, or the mosque down the street, or th very convenient porn theater just right over there?

      No? C'mon Dianna! Just get over yourself!

      November 7, 2012 at 1:55 am |
    • MCR

      Just because people at the church you voted at behaved themselves doesn't mean everyone did, or will.


      November 7, 2012 at 5:29 am |
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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.