My Take: Stop using churches as polling places
The author says that churches that act as polling places can sway voters.
November 6th, 2012
09:19 AM ET

My Take: Stop using churches as polling places

Editor’s note: The Rev. Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

By Barry W. Lynn, Special to CNN

I live in Maryland, where we have a lot of controversial questions on Tuesday's ballot, including referenda on marriage equality, the rights of immigrants and the expansion of gambling.

Many churches and other houses of worship have taken stands on these issues and lots of others, which is their prerogative. Although federal law prohibits churches from endorsing or opposing candidates, they have the right to speak out on ballot referenda and on other issues, from abortion to zoning.

All of this church-based political activity makes me uneasy about casting ballots in houses of worship, especially those festooned with political signs. And yet today, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of churches around the country are being pressed into service as polling places.

At Americans United for Separation of Church and State, we get a steady stream of calls about this phenomenon every election season. Some complain of being forced to cast their ballot in a house of worship when there’s a nearby public school, library or community center that could just as easily act as a polling place.

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We shouldn’t dismiss these concerns as whining from an overly sensitive band of people who are religion-phobic. These concerns are legitimate. And some intriguing studies even suggest that voting in a church might influence voters.

The American Humanist Association, which filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against voting in churches in Florida, cited a recent Baylor University study published in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion that found that people in the Netherlands and England reported more conservative views to a pollster when in the vicinity of a church.

“[The] important finding here,” said the study’s co-author, Wade Rowatt, “is that people near a religious building reported slightly but significantly more conservative social and political attitudes than similar people near a government building.”

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An earlier study by Stanford University reported a similar effect. “Voting in a church could activate norms of following church doctrine,” said Jonah Berger, a Stanford researcher. “Such effects may even occur outside an individual’s awareness.”

In Maryland, this might mean that an on-the-fence voter facing the marriage equality question might be pushed to vote no by something as simple as a sign or pamphlet in the church/polling place. Such material might even affect a soft voter’s candidate choices.

How is this possible? Psychologists call it “priming,” the idea that even subtle visual or verbal cues can affect human behavior.

More studies need to be done to validate and explain this phenomenon. In the meantime it would make sense to avoid using churches as polling places. Neutral sites should always be preferred.

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There are other reasons to skip casting ballots in the basilica.

I’ve talked with people who describe their unease voting on an abortion-related referendum in a Catholic church, where they may be surrounded by posters depicting abortion as a grisly holocaust. Others say they don’t want to back an abortion-rights candidate in a church that is known for anti-abortion activism.

No public library, public school or town hall would display such material next to the voting machines. No government building would have a towering cross in the voting area.

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Many of those who have contacted us about this have reported that churches will not remove this material and that pastors argue that they have a right to keep it up.

As churches become more aggressive in the political arena, the argument that they can be neutral sites for voting, a concept that has been embraced by some courts, comes up short.

I’ve even talked with atheists, Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians who don’t want to exercise a basic constitutional right in a church. These people have nothing against Christianity; they simply don’t believe that a fundamental democratic right should hinge on their willingness to enter a church. (And yes, most of the houses of worship used as polling places are Christian churches.)

People who support using churches as polling places often point to the need to maximize the number of polling locations to increase turnout. That’s a laudable goal, but there are many ways to do this that don’t rely on using churches, like early voting and voting by mail.

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For those who prefer to show up in person on Election Day, there are plenty of schools, libraries, town halls and civic centers to meet the need for polling centers. In small towns and rural areas, well-known commercial sites would make better polling places than churches.

If there is absolutely no other option than voting in churches, I recommend that election officials make it clear to officials at the church that they must play by the same rules as every other site.

That means no politicking inside a certain zone. And the area where the voting occurs should be cleansed of all religious symbols and political material. The voting area should be as neutral as possible.

Voting is every Americans right, some would say duty. Let’s do all we can to avoid making people feel unwelcome at the ballot box.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Barry W. Lynn.

- CNN Belief Blog

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

soundoff (1,507 Responses)
  1. KingPolly

    Ok then. Is he wiling to pay the extra cost for othe venues for voting? Since Churches generally offer low cost space of the size and structure needed for voting. Also, school boards, communities and libraries also take their share of stands on issues. If someone changes their vote because of what building they are in, they are pretty weak minded.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • krussell

      I wonder what Planned Parenthood would charge to use thier facilities for voting, and if you would see a problem if they did.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  2. CJ Malone

    Interesting argument.... Maybe the Supreme Court should take this one up in their next session. Render unto them that which is due them!

    November 6, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  3. jOE

    I work in church and we have two locations. Both are polling sites. It wouldn't bother me to have people vote at the school or city hall two blocks away. They don't do it because it would be a hassle for them. Churches being used as a polling place is a big savings to the public. We don't put up any signs to sway people. We just open our building.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Gerry

      The building is an implicit political opinion. That's the problem.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • ANgry Irish

      If only that were true Joe. The polling place I went to this morning had TONS of signs along the sidewalk less than 100 feet from the door, all Rethuglican.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Tom

      Still having a hard time dealing with that anger, eh, Irish? Can't quite make a comment without resorting to name-calling, eh? All uptight and bothered just beause of a little old sign, eh? You're a real piece of work, but thanks for commenting anyway.

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

      *All* polling places have signs up to some fixed distance from the door!

      November 6, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  4. Javier

    Nobody cares how you feel Barry. Get over youself.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  5. Oh Bah ma

    I just remembered, I can't vote. I'm not a U.S. citizen.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • Huebert

      People like you are the reason I say that I'm Canadian when traveling abroad.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  6. Mitt Romney

    I'm losing right now. Dang.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Todd Akin

      I gonna take serious prison sex at the polls today

      November 6, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Richard Mourdock

      I don't think it is right that people vote against me just because I said something incredible stupid.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  7. Sherri

    I, personally, have not had a problem at the church where I vote, but it is conceivable that some would be uncomfortable doing it. I do not have to walk through the sanctuary to vote, luckily. It is in the basement level and I don't think I've seen any/much religious symbols there. But, strictly speaking, I do think it would be better if people were not forced to enter a church to exercise their right to vote. And by the way, there is a public school just across the street from the church where I vote.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • john riggs


      November 6, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • Bet


      Could you shout a little louder please?

      November 6, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  8. wizzzard in the sky

    If this is a problem then there should be monitors from the New Black Panthers, the KKK, Tea party, Gay rights, UN...etc. AND ID!

    November 6, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  9. Eric

    Does the phrase seperation of church and state not mean anything? There is no reason why in a populated area that schools, libraries, or other federal buildings can't be used as voting locations. Utah is the best example. A Mormon candidate and having to vote at an LDS church? Not right.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • GAW

      In an LDS church? Perish the thought. They probably would be watching voters carefully and locking the doors if anyone votes for the wrong candidate.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Maria Santos

      Research separation of church and state. It's to protect the church from the government not the other way around.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Murph

      Please. In Philly the voters at a local school have to look at a mural of Obama, along with his campaign logo, and a quote from one of his speeches. Talk about trying to influence an election. Nowhere is safe. Just put on your big boy pants (or your big girl panties) and go vote your mind and conscience.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Gail

      Seriously! The seperation of church and state means that the government can't promote any religion. It doesn't mean that a church cannot offer a building as a polling place nor that the government cannot accept that offer. For those that want polling places moved out of churches, stop whining and do something constructive to change it. Offer up a building you own or lease as a polling place.

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

      Sad, Eric. You know the words but are completely clueless about what they mean. Please be quiet. You're embarrassing yourself.

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

    No matter where you have the polling place, there will be possible conflict of interests. If you hold them in public schools, won't that affect your vote on a school bond? If you hold it in a business, won't that affect your vote on a sales tax increase? If you hold it in a government building, won't that affect your vote on term limits or budget issues? No matter where you go, there will always be a possible conflict of interest.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • Larry Barry

      So then let's just forget all about it amd make people vote at Democrat campaign headquarters?

      See the problems? There has to be a line in the sand or the situation gets ridiculous.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  11. wizzzard in the sky

    I don't care if it's church, butcher shop, out house or a bar. I am going to vote! Where it is has nothing to do with how I vote.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  12. Tom

    Poor, fragile, confused, Barry. It must be hard to be you when you imagine the big bad bogeyman is behind every shift in the air currents.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  13. Jimmy Swagert

    If they would move them to houses of ill repute then I wouldn't have to leave to go vote.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • JFCanton

      This would have been a good joke if we had the Internet in 1988.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • Orel Robertz

      So you think just cuz he got caught, he quit doing it? Ya, most criminals do that.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • JFCanton

      I don't particularly care since I am sure as heck not giving him any money; I was just observing that 1988 was when he was relevant.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  14. Helen

    Schools don't always prove to be neutral either. Look at the school in Philadelphia with a huge Obama mural!! Its far more shameful for a school that children HAVE to attend to have a big mural praising Obama than it is for a Church that does not require attendance to have posters up about religious issues. Are we indoctrinating our children in schools now?? I have been in public builings where there is a portrait of the President in the lobby as you go in, and fingd this acceptable and proper. But this mural looked like something you would see in Russia or a Middle Eastern dictatorship where they brainwash kids to believe in people and ideals.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • Eduardo

      There are really two separate issues here:
      (1) the existence of a mural of a history-making president in a school;
      (2) having voting take place in that room when that president is running for re-election (without the mural being covered)
      Situation #1 is totally appropriate. It is interesting that no one complains about images of our past white presidents in schools, but suddenly when people see an image of our first black president in a school they think it's Communist.
      Situation #2 is biased and inappropriate but easily remedied by covering up the mural.

      November 12, 2012 at 7:38 am |
    • Eduardo

      To the question of whether we are indoctrinating children in schools, the answer is yes, but that is nothing new. The teaching of history has pretty much always been about indoctrination. For generations mainstream history books have been written to tell only one simple version of history, with clear-cut good guys and bad guys (and the USA is always the good guy), leaving out the messy debates, the moral complexity and the critical thinking.

      November 12, 2012 at 7:47 am |
  15. John Stockton

    We can send a man to the moon (or at least we used to be able to) and we can send a car-sized rover to Mars but we haven't figured out a way to safely vote online or via telephone. Almost everyone either has a phone or an internet connection; those who don't can get to the post office and mail a ballot. The fact that we still use churches as voting places and that people use schools and public building as equivalents in arguing for churches as polling places, shows just how backward, stupid and wrong we are as a nation. Techo-taliban is what we are. Just because our things aren't in the sone age doesn't mean our minds aren't!

    November 6, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  16. noel

    It won't matter...upright and Godly men would NEVER endorse a party yet alone a candidate from the pulpit. Folks like Falwell, Jackson, Wright, and Sharpton make it a regular practice. Martin Luther King Jr. was a card carrying REPUBLICAN who never once endorsed a party or candidate in public. Makes you wonder how his disciples missed the boat. Bottom line:Keep church and state completely and utterly seperate!!! Where you vote should be of no consequence if protocols are followed.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  17. ann

    First of all in our area there are not very many places big enough to accommodate polling places besides churches. Suggesting you use well known commercial sites does not make sense because 1) there are no commercial sites of that size in our area unless you are talking about the grocery store and 2) you would probably have to pay the facility owner a fee since they do not have to accommodate polling.

    Secondly churches tend to willingly volunteer to accommodate polling, and often I have seen then feed the poll workers etc all out of the goodness of their hearts. Likewise members tend to volunteer to help for free. If you had to have the polling place at a school, library etc you would have to have the tax payers food the electricity bill for the day, pay workers to come open up the building and keep an eye on the building etc etc.

    Third, if you are so easily influenced about your vote, then voting in a public location might have a similar effect. What if the images of environmental education in a library influenced a person to vote for environmental stuff they would normally have opposed?

    November 6, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • Helen

      Nicely said. Its funny how some people are so afraid of churches and Christians. If they really believe there is no God, why do they fight against him so vehmently? Just ignore the Christian literature and move along. If someone changes their vote at the last minute becasue they were in a church, they didn't have very strong convictions in the first place. If you have strong convictions for either side, where you vote won't change anything.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  18. Mel Gibsun

    I think they should all be at bars.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • GAW

      I'm voting at Ho toers

      November 6, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  19. Rodents for Romney

    That sign is a hoot. I thought the future was in their god's hands.
    Oh well.
    Whatever floats their boat today.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  20. Ken Brady

    This whole story, especially the "studies" is as idiotic as the one last week claiming that a woman's vote will change depending on if she is, or is not ovulating.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.