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. steve

    people worry about where they vote and yet the pink panthers are in philly today with their bullying tactics
    oh yeah, it would be politically incorrect to stop these thugs and throw them in jail. i forgot when that idiot holden and obama let them go the last election and didn't prosecute. those thugs come anywhere near me it will be their last time to get near anyone!

    November 6, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • TheVocalAtheist

      I don't think your post has anything to do with the article, do you?

      November 6, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  2. jimmy

    i am strongly in favor of the separation of church and state. i have also voted numerous times in churches and synagogues with no reservations whatsoever. this is really a non-issue. if you don't like voting in churches, then volunteer your own home or business as a polling place. churches are used because they are available and convenient and if you think that's a problem, offer a real solution.

    November 6, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • CJ

      Same. I would point out that I have seen polling places at several different churches and at religiously affiliated schools, but NEVER have I seen one that was actually located in the worship space. My polling places have always been in either the lobby or social hall of churches (two Southern baptist and one Methodist), and when I was in high school (a Catholic school) we had one that was in the lobby of the school staff's monastery. Not even in the same building as the chapel.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • oldbones24

      Until I was old we always voted in public schools, the kids got the day off and understood that voting was very important. We didn't have early voting.

      November 6, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
  3. TheVocalAtheist

    I have to thank the Reverend for this article. It is incredible that we have to point-out to these churches what their role is in our society. They are places of worship for those with faith in a God. They enjoy tax-exempt status for this service BUT that is where it ends. The recent Pulpit Sunday effort to taunt the IRS is a perfect example of why we should demand that the government withdraw their tax status. They are playing with fire and if the IRS doesn't grow some balls on this issue this will get out of hand, actually it should have never got to this point.

    November 6, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • W247

      Historically the churches roll in society has always been as a community/neighborhood meeting place. Most neighborhoods have revolved around functions happening in church meeting halls. People have depended on the generous food closets, clothing donations, monetary donations that can be found in most neighborhood churches. Without these services there are a lot of people out there that would not have food, clothes, support that they need. These services come from the generousity of the church community itself, helping others out, and yes these people do payt taxes as well, helping out the wider community and nation. Go ahead and lambast churches and the people if that makes you feel better, but obviously you are too busy being cynical to actually get off your rear end and go and see how these organizations actually work to the benefit of the community.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  4. miamimike13

    The Rev. Lynn is a preacher of what religion and what church? This is nothing but a scare tactic from the radical left. I have voted in church and don't see anything but election workers when I walk in. It is stupid to believe that by merely walking into a church one changes their vote. The studies Lynn listed imply that the person would have voted otherwise if they had voted at a public building. I don't see any evidence of that.

    November 6, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • TheVocalAtheist

      It is apparent that you are biased. It is called psychological priming, a proven method of influence. Grow a brain.

      November 6, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • mama k

      If you knew much at all about the history of the separation of church and state, you would understand why someone would be intimidated by having to vote in a house of worship. It is stupid to believe that everyone is seeing things the same way you are. People should absolutely not be voting in churches.

      November 6, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • JohnQ

      Good words @miamimike13

      Apparently Lynn is of the First Church of the Liberal Biggoted Jacka..err Donkey.

      By the way ... @Athiest ... You need to grow a brain, and transplant it from you rectum. If you don't like the place, move your pile of crap outta here.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • TheVocalAtheist

      @John Low IQ

      Fu*ck Off there Johnny. I have just as much right to be here and voice my opinion as you. You're a piece of shi*t.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • W247

      Mama K – are you saying that people are so weak minded that they would be influenced so easily? You have to remember, they have been bombarded with TV spots, radio spots, banners, billboards etc for the past year, spending 10 minutes voting in a church is not going to "deprogram" and "reprogram" someone that quickly..... geesh. Get a grip.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  5. Katina

    I used to vote at a Catholic Church and I was amazed by the number of posters, pictures, and signs the church displayed that overtly backed a particular candidate or issue. They did so brazenly, because they know they could get away with doing so. Who was going to start a fight with a priest in his own church? I moved six years ago and now vote at the local civic center. It's night and day. They have clear guidelines about electioneering, and they enforce them. When you enter the building, it's just you and your vote. Churches as polling places should be an absolute LAST RESORT, and they should be required to play by the same rules as a public school, library, or civic center. Why is this even up for debate??

    November 6, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • W247

      Actually Katina – there are clear restrictions on what should and should not be allowed at a polling place. If your polling place was not adhering to these restrictions, then you should have reported them. Did you?

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

      Katina, what do you think about the polling places that have big pictures of President Obama on the wall? A judge in Pennsylvania had to get involved today to get one curtained over. Is this worse than being in the fellowship hall area of a (pardon the word, gasp!) church?

      November 6, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
    • Eduardo

      Hear, hear! With you all the way.

      November 12, 2012 at 3:47 am |
    • Eduardo

      Just to clarify, my last comment was aimed at supporting Katina's statement, not Geno's.

      November 12, 2012 at 3:52 am |
  6. Alger Dave

    To agree with him, you'd have to believe that schools (the other likely polling place in my communities) don't push their own religion. And, of course they do. Whether that be evolution, secular humanism or the like, public education espouses philosophies and agendas as much or more than many churches out there. If I described a place where the public was largely welcome, but what was taught there was closely guarded dogma, and only people agreeing with and teaching that dogma were allowed to work there, would I be talking about a church, or a public school? Think about it.

    November 6, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • TheVocalAtheist

      Try and twist it anyway you would like but you're still wrong.

      November 6, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • Pete

      Yes, how dare public schools teach kids reality, you know, like evolution. I honestly believe that anybody who says they don't "believe in evolution" should be taken out back and shot.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • W247

      Wow Pete, threatening violence because someone doesn't have the same opinion or beliefs as you do. That is very intolerant of you!

      November 6, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • Jim

      This is a moronic argument.

      If you are so weak minded that you will change your vote by entering a church, then you are a wek-minded fool and nothing can change that.

      Attempting to make a neutral place also changes what people will do and/or change according to the same theory. There are no ubiased places according to this theory.

      You go Barry! Stand up for those who are so feeble-minded that seeing a crucifix or Koran or Buddha image will change their decision. It is childish hogwash.

      November 6, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • MCR

      @Jim, no one is going to change their vote because of the polling place. Well...not a lot of people (I've heard some weird stories of people who decide in the booth). Rather the issue is with potentially deterring people from voting who might not be comfortable in a particular place of worship...remember that ANY place of worship could in theory be picked, and an offer from a group that was turned down could end in the same kind of suits we saw when the KKK wanted to put up their name on clean highway signs.

      November 6, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  7. neauneau

    If anyone in Church does not support the advancement of another and they support the people who are going to pass laws that hold others back, the lord sees every thing and those people pray in vain

    November 6, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  8. Uniquitous

    If what you say is true, than by counter effect, voting in government buildings or in schools would cause you to vote for more government programs than you would normally. Is that better, some would say no. Or, if we held elections in businesses that volunteer their space, would we then vote for officials or ballot initiatives that were more conducive to business leaders? There are enough laws about sharing your views in and around polling stations wherever they are, vote your conscience and your convictions, whatever they may be, regardless of where you vote.

    November 6, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • Eduardo

      Elections are public, government-run processes. They should be held in public, government buildings if at all possible. The important part is that there is enough space and that all citizens feel welcomed equally. Obviously this is not the case in churches. Many people feel welcome and comfortable in Christian churches, but many others do not. Holding in an election where so many people may feel unwelcome is inherently unfair and violates the principle of separation of church and state.

      November 12, 2012 at 4:05 am |
  9. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    November 6, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • Huebert

      Why won't you test your claim?

      November 6, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • HeavenSense

      Hi Prayerbot.

      November 6, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • just sayin

      Truth does not require a test, two wonderful Truths expressed no test required. God bless

      November 6, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Huebert

      Claims require support. The best way to support a claim is with a test. Support your claim or be dismissed as a fraud.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:02 am |
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      This troll is not a christian.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • Jesus

      Prayer does not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  10. unknown11

    Are you so hateful that you cannot even enter a building to cast a vote? Get over it. Get a life.

    November 6, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • mama k

      We know better than your moniker suggests about your level of education regarding history of the separation of church and state. Because if you knew much about it, you would understand why someone would be intimidated by having to vote in a house of worship. People should absolutely not be voting in churches.

      November 6, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • W247

      Likewise MamaK – I agree with you! If people are so intimidated and weak minded that spending 10-15 minutes in a church is going to change their WHOOOOOLLLEEEE life style, then they shouldn't be voting. Period. Actually they shouldn't watch TV, listen to the radio or look at billboards either.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  11. Gail Bentivegna

    I agree that reglious places should not be used as polling places. I vote in a synagogue on Chicago Avenue. I went in at 6 am and was immediately told, by the elderly Jewish election judge, that I could not vote there, because I did not live in the ward, this before anyone asked me for my voter registration information.

    I politely gave them my election board materials, including the Precinct/ward information cards. Then I was told that I could not vote because I was not on the active list. I replied that I confirmed that I was active on the list, as I had called the board on the previous Friday to validate the poling location and my status.

    So at that point they looked me up and determined that I was, after all, eligible. There was a secondary tussle over my use of the electronic voting machine, not being used at the time I was voting, because they were not giving voters the option to use it. I succeeded in getting my plastic card, voted electronically, and left.
    I reported this to the Chicago board of elections, who told me that they would call them to remind them that they cannot aarbitrarily challenge a voter before the credentials are validated.

    November 6, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • unknown11

      And this story would be different if the poling place was not a synagogue? Chicago politics, and now because of Obama, national politics is ugly.

      November 6, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • Matt

      Same thing happened to me... except it was at the Police Station in Wrigleyville. I showed up right when they opened, and the Democratic Judge told me to go to the Belmont location. I can only imagine it was because I happened to be wearing a red time with my suit today.

      I then proceeded to inform them to check the books as my card clearly showed where I was to vote (2 doors down from my house)! Then they screamed they needed to see my ID...To which I refused as they had seen my card and we have the no ID required rules here. Eventually I was finally allowed to vote, but I must say that I am growing quite frustrated with the Chicago political machine.

      November 6, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Eduardo

      Unknown, get a grip. National politics has been pretty ugly since long before Obama arrived on the scene. And people like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are not making it any prettier.

      November 12, 2012 at 4:16 am |
  12. anteater

    The church preaches politics from the pupit all the time ( no politics for their tax exempt status) they break the law all the time, and should play no part in the political process.

    November 6, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • W247

      Anteater, which church? Can you name it? Which Pastor were you listening too? Or are you just making comments to cause trouble?

      November 6, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  13. elizabeth

    Mr. Lynn, you are majoring in minors. I'm thankful that I have the privilege to vote. Where that takes place, is a non issue. Your attempt to alarm people, is puzzling to me. We get to vote.Many nations, do not afford their citizens this opportunity.I don't think those heroes in our past, that fought for this right to be given to U.S. citizens, were hung up on something as trivial as location. So why are you? Did you vote today, or vote early? Your vote will still be counted, no matter where it was cast.

    November 6, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  14. beachgalone

    I feel the same. I left our neighborhood church this morning wondering why the site isn't at the civic center?

    November 6, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • Al

      Or a Strip Club.

      November 6, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • Jacob

      I'm a Christian but it wouldn't bother me to vote in a mosque or a strip club. It's just 4 walls and a roof, after all. There are a lot more churches scattered around than civic centers, and they're not being used for anything else. Churches should have to abide by the same rules as everyone else, though, as far as campaign material in the vicinity of polling places.

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

      Jacob, you wouldn't have a problem but a lot of people would. That's why it should never be done in that location. Point being that ist should Not be in a location that Mighty offend people.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • Al

      Mighty? Freakin' auto spell correct.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • Pete

      No matter what you do someone, somewhere will be offended.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      I think, that as long as the rules for polling places are followed, there isn't a problem. Yes people will be offended, but really there's no real reason to get angry with the building you're going to.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  15. JD

    AMEN!!! And this coming from an agnostic! Yes, by all means, churches should NOT be polling places as there is a clear separation of church and state. We are not a Christian nation after all!

    November 6, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • Matt

      I agree... get the state out of the church! It's getting ridiculous how much the state is infringing on church policies, hiring practices, and use of buildings.

      November 6, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  16. clubschadenfreude

    I'm of two minds about using churches as polling places. It's a fact, though many Christians won't believe it, that atheists and people of other faiths won't burst into flame when entering a church no matter how hard the Christians pray. Part of me says that we may as well use a church, it's a useless building otherwise, often empty, a waste of money and built to satisfy the special snowflakism of a lot of people who think that their version is the only "right" one.

    The other part wants religion to lose its "sacred cow" place in society, so why give it any more recognition than a place where people pretend that some god lives. No need to acknowledge a religion that says that anyone who doesn't follow it should be killed or at best shunned.

    All in all, I agree with Mr. Lynn. No need to involve churches. They can keep their tax exempt status, but as soon as they get involved, then they cease being the force for the "whole" community as they claim, and are just as partisan and exclusionary as any other group.

    November 6, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • MG

      I'm an atheist and i can assure you i did not burst into flames this morning while voting at a church. I also didn't really give a second thought to anything religious while there. Since I can form my own opinions and stick to what i believe, i was not swayed in any manner by being in a church. I simply viewed it as a place to go cast my vote and nothing more. My life was not impacted negatively by walking into the church nor do i expect to experience any long lasting effects that will hinder my ability to continue living my life how i see fit. I really don't see why this is an issue at all.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • W247

      MG: THANK YOU for givign such an intelligent response to the theatrics that are happening all over this comment board and this article.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
      • clubschadenfreude

        I think the opnit of not having voting in a church is that some people simply don't want to be seen supporting them in anyway. They are not centers of the community, only of their community. I'd rather have voting take place at a laundromat.

        November 6, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  17. CJ

    The church is where it all started....your insecurities are showing and highly symbolic to the lack thereof. Being or feeling this way just means you need help but from professionals. A poll can be in one's backyard or frontyard. This is not atheism, it is just plain racial.

    November 6, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • clubschadenfreude

      The church is where what "all started"? Certainly not democracy where people rule themselves or through representatives. The bible mentions not one *single* word about the people having power, only gods and the people put in place by those gods (aka the divine right of kings). You seem to be telling a lie, CJ. That's unfortunate.

      November 6, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • The church

      is were it all started... Is that before or after they burned people at the stake for disageeing with the church? jesus would even LOL at that one.

      November 6, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • MCR

      Democracy started in Ancient greek churches? Wow, my history classes had it all wrong.

      November 6, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • TheVocalAtheist

      You are typical of right wing ignorance, no, more like just plain stupid.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  18. Jane Galt

    My polling place is at a Catholic church. I got around that by switching to mail-in ballot.

    November 6, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  19. Solitairedog

    I completely agree with him.

    November 6, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  20. cc

    No matter where voting takes place the vicinity should be clear of all political signs. If a church won't do that then it should be fined. As for the studies that people who hang around churches express more conservative views-maybe that's because more people with conservative views hang around churches. The question isn't whether or not people who hang around churches have more conservative views but whether or not people who vote in churches vote more conservatively. Those statistics should be readily available (precinct voting records) but nothing was reported about that. Even if it were though there's the issue that maybe fewer people will vote when they're forced to vote in a church. I'm not sure how you'd check that-turnout varies in different locations, but it also varies year to year so I'm not sure how you'd get an accurate comparison. One thing is certain though, that barring churches from being polls won't have any bad results as long as they're replaced with similarly located neutral sites.

    November 6, 2012 at 10:28 am |
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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.