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. Joe

    So the Phillidelphia school used as a voting location with a large mural of Obama is better than voting in a church? And how many churches espouse ideas that are not concervative? (There are many.) Focus on what you can control (i.e. who and what you vote for) and stop lamenting things that are pointless.

    November 6, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  2. elle

    Churches are used because they tend to be the biggest buildings in the town. They would have to close a school for a day to use it and that means many people would have to stay home from work to watch their kids.

    November 6, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  3. hfj@ldo.cc


    November 6, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  4. SWVoter

    I voted on a school bond override and a tax increase to support schools. I am certain if I had to vote in a school I would have been influenced to vote yes on those tax increases. Instead I cast my vote at the local aquatics center. First time I have voted at the pool.

    November 6, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • TJ Turner

      Exactly the point I was going to make. If voting in church tends to give a conservative bias then voting in schools or government buildings could give a liberal bias. Until we find a place to vote that gives no bias (I doubt such a place exists) then, rather than making unilateral decisions we should simply start by eliminating any church unwilling to take down or cover material that could effect the vote. That seems like fair start.

      If an atheist is too offended by the idea of walking into a church building to vote then that's their problem. A homeschooling, Christian parent may be too offended by the idea of walking into a school to vote. If we're going to pick poling places on which ones offend people or don't then we have to start considering everybody, no matter how crazy.

      November 6, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • Dow

      This conservative horse-and-pony show brought to you by Dow, makers of napalm.

      Glad you both turned on Rush Limbaugh this morning to find out what your opinions are.

      November 6, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
  5. Bill

    If churches can be polling places, can we also use abortion clinics?

    November 6, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • MCR

      Yeah, if planned parenthood offers up their offices I can bet you this will shut down as a policy super fast.

      November 6, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  6. Barry Obama, community organizer

    Polling in a Mosque is an affront to Islam and the Holy Prophet !

    Only an infidel would suggest such a thing !

    November 6, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  7. joesmith

    and you ask yourself, in times of bewilderment, "what has this country come to", well, reading this article, it does not surprise me in the least, why our children grow up with no sense of values, editorials such as this, only point out how lost we as a nation have become..this fellow needs a long walk in the snow of Alaska..after a few brutal days of wondering alone and lost, he may come to the conclusion, the values his Mother tried unsuccessfully to instill, take on new meaning..

    November 6, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  8. MCR

    I am an Orthodox Jew. My polling place is in a side room in the back of a church. There are no crosses in the room and nothing to indicate that I have entered a house of worship. I am not bothered by this. If voting took place in the local public school, that would mean shutting down the school for the day and the kids would miss an opportunity for learning. I have no problem voting in a church.

    November 6, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • MCR (a different MCR)

      Actually at my polling place we use the school while the kids are there...no shut down.

      Sorry, I've been posting as MCR for a while...

      November 6, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  9. Flounder

    Churches are better used as polling stations than as stations for worshipping and praying to (fictional) deities.

    I've also heard of several former churches that have been turned into great pubs. Great improvement.

    November 6, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  10. BeRational

    I would rather vote in a church than in a school with a mural of a president who has done absolutely nothing good for our country staring down at me.

    November 6, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • MCR

      The presidents picture and that of other govt officials will always be present and everyone has been used to seeingthem for 4 years. I agree they should be taken down if its easy, but its hardly a statement when having things like a flag and the picture of the president are standard practice in schools. Having the presidents picture is just a basic part of civics education.

      November 6, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • Max Fenster

      ~I would rather vote in a church than in a school with a mural of a president who has done absolutely nothing good for our country staring down at me.
      Isn't about time to stop complaining about George Bush?

      November 6, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • AZ

      A picture or mural of a president is not bad but the one that happens to be running for office...I would say that has political undertones.

      November 6, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  11. Burbank

    I have voted in churches before and they are OK. I would prefer a non-church location but it doesn't bother me that much.

    November 6, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  12. Priorities First!

    Really, Mr. Lynn get a life and get out of mine !
    It’s not like you have to go inside a church and sit a a pew in order to vote. Nor will you have to listen to a sermon.. It is usually in a separate building or basement. If that bothers you, there is no reason you should be taking part in the electoral process. This is done for sake of convenience, not religious preference.

    November 6, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • the fox

      I generally agree with Rev. Lynn. However, in this case I don't see where the voting place influences the voting. At least in my case, voting in a church might actually reenforce my liberal views. It could be kind of a "got cha" moment.

      November 6, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  13. DuFuS

    Well, we should stop doing anything that makes Barry Lynn uncomfortable. There. Fixed.

    November 6, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  14. SCY385

    I can understand why this would bother some people, but for me it doesn't matter. I believe what I believe and I live it everyday. Going to vote in somebody else's church is not going to change that one bit . They can believe what they want and as long as they don't interfere with my ability to vote I'm cool with it.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  15. MelodyD

    First, schools would have to close for voting for safety reasons. My nieces are out today because their school is used. There are also plenty of libraries, fire halls, city halls etc. being used for voting so it's not all in churches. Also, the reason churches have been used over all these years was basically a practical one. Typically, churches were the only large building in town that could accommodate all the voters. In the really olden days, the church was the town center and also served as city hall and school. As far as all the political pamphlets, churches do have to abide by all the same laws and every other polling place – traditionally no politicking within 100 or so feet of the polling place. As far as making someone vote more conservatively by voting in a church – consider this: Is it possible that people who typically live around a church perhaps are church members? Many seek housing close to their church, or decide to visit a close church once they move.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  16. SNoob


    November 6, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  17. Your state government

    Too keep things fair, all the polling places will be in mosques next election.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  18. teamphy6

    The author and anyone with the same sentiment need to grow the **** up and vote for what you want to vote for. If a pamphlet or sign is going to influence you, then so be it, it means you really didn't care about the issue that much to begin with. It's a secret ballot. What about all the public schools that have posters and mottos on the wall promoting the opposite ideals of the church? I voted in a church today and received pamphlets from both parties on our way to the doors.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  19. Sara

    I just finished voting at a Catholic Church and I am not Christian. I had to walk through the lobby filled with Catholic images of the crucifixation to get to the hall where I could vote. Across the street was a school that was not being used. This is not right.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • Not so

      It IS right. Religious Right!

      November 6, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  20. Raven

    Obviously Barry really doesn't know much about the country.
    There may be no Library, The school may not be as large or may not have the money to support it as a voting area.
    I voted in a church this morning. Wasn't my "Brand" of church. Was I offended? No I went to vote and I did so.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
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