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.

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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.

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. patw

    Liberals must stay awake at night thinking of things to whine about.

    November 6, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
  2. Emmanuel Goldstein

    Guys like the author of this article is what gives the rest of us liberals a bad name. He is the left equivalent to the westboro baptist church (okay, not THAT bad, but you get the gist)

    November 6, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
  3. Emmanuel Goldstein

    I can't tell if Ronald is joking or mentally unstable. Vote at my new poll now!

    Ronald is:

    A) Making fun of silly Conservatives who are just so dang silly!
    B) In serious need of psychiatric help
    C) Simply not very bright

    While tempting, please don't vote for more than one option.

    November 6, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
    • Fred Rubble

      He's a Poe.

      November 6, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
  4. Eliminate hinduism, religions corruption of truth absolute by hindu's lairs, for peace, Islam among humanity.


    Have peace, Islam on earth, DUMP hINDUISM, DENIAL OF TRUTH ABSOLUTE.

    Faith in hindu Mormon ism is nothing but faith in hindu Moran ism, filthy self center ism, Romany have some guts to defend his hinduism, racism in front of people. Give hindu Magi' criminal trickster, deserving shoe in his mouth.
    Eliminate hindu Judaism, filthy secular ism to have peace, Islam among humanity. hindu's blinded leading hindu, blinded, game of hindu Magi's, criminal tricksters to stay in business of hinduism, denial of truth absolute, let it be hindu's, ignorant preachers, speaking not of truth absolute GOD, nor hindu atheist, ignorant self centered, secular s. rode with a hindu blinded driver, BET ON A WRACK, YOU WILL NEVER LOOSE.

    Expect nothing better but mayhem among humanity by following of hinduism, denial of truth absolute, Allah, and following of hindu pagan Mithra ism, savior ism, neither commanded, nor allowed in Islam as a religion, but Theen Allah, consti tution of truth absolute. Foundation of American consti tution.
    hindu Mithra ism, savior ism invented little over 100 years after Sydana Mohammad pbh by tribes of Kujar of north Africa and imposition as Fatmid Khalaphit by force by denial of Hidth and Quran, justified by hindu Judaism, pagan secularism to impose hinduism, racism by hindu, fabricated relationship with Family of Syadana Mohammad pbh to justify existence of hindu criminal Kings, a violation of fundamental commandment, human equality under the LA. truth absolute Allah. Cause of conflict among Muslim's and cause of down fall of Muslim's and Islam in Spain.

    Sunisim, invented by Turk's by corruption of Quran and hidth to justify existence of hindu King's as Khalipha, after death of Ruler Mohammad, but later renamed, Mehmmat, wisdom of spirit of truth by siblings from his Armenian wife, follower of hindu pagan Mithra ism, savior ism in 13th century.

    Christianity, invented by hinduism,. corruption of truth absolute by hindu Pharisees, pagan self centered, follower of hindu filthy pig ism by corrupted Torah, known as Greek Torah, translated and commented by Ben Asheer in 250 AD in Yiddish, secularist, self centered language, also known as Old Testament, part of book of Mithra ism labeled as Bible. A way to justify hindu criminal Kings and self proclaimed Prophets, fortune tellers as god's to rule over humanity.

    JUDAISM, Self center ism, pig ism, or Atheism, invented by hindu's pagan's of Egypt by corruption of truth absolute in Torah to Justify hindu pagan Pharaoh's and their hindu pagan Santans, goons as god's to rule over humanity with impunity.

    word hindu is based on Latin word hindered, negative, Hun, great, Han, to be in greatness, hin, to be negative to both of them, hindu, a noun in negativity, hinduism, way of negativity.
    Visit limitisthetruth.com to learn about hinduism, criminality of hindu's, criminals to impose hinduism, racism on humanity by hinduism, corruption of truth absolute by force.

    November 6, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
    • Emmanuel Goldstein

      I can't tell if it is REALLY sad or REALLY funny when they forget to take their meds.

      November 6, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • MCR

      @emanuel, It's sad; just leave it alone. This person does this all day every day, and it is very disturbing that we can't get him or her help. Just leave it alone.

      November 6, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
    • Eliminate hinduism, religions corruption of truth absolute by hindu's lairs, for peace, Islam among humanity.


      November 6, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
  5. Diane Carol

    The things people find to whine and complain about never cease to amaze me. A church building used as a polling place is nothing more than a shelter to house the voting booths. If a voter has "issues" with it, then vote absentee in the privacy of your own home! Good grief, people, with all significant concerns in this world, THIS is what some focus on? Get real.

    November 6, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
  6. jaketinback

    Mittology.."regular attempts to have the 10 commandments displayed on public buildings". Oh you mean like the ones that are on the Supreme Court Building? FAIL.

    November 6, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
    • MCR

      Yes, it was a failure of ethics that allowed that infringement on the separation of church and state. Unfortunately, each creep we make towards theocracy is very difficult to reverse, becoming the new normal, and ever further from the founders vision.

      November 6, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
  7. KyRunner

    End antagonizing cnn reporters who serve no other purpose then to try and help screw America over just for a Pulitzer prize

    November 6, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  8. PA - School

    This obviously ignores the story today about a PUBLIC SCHOOL with a huge Obama Mural scrawled across the wall in the voting room...

    November 6, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • MCR

      While it would be better not to have that, the president isn't seen by anyone (at least I hope not) as a moral authority in the way that a church is. The bigger problem, however, comes when a religious building is used which makes a voter uncomfortable. Remember that ANY religious organization could be used, so you might be asking someone to return to vote in the church that excommunicated him or that subjected him to years of ant-gay retraining. Or a racist church...you don't know because once you say yes to one church, you have to say yes to any other offers.

      November 6, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • Bet

      It was covered after someone complained.

      November 6, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
  9. Kevin M

    Are people really this weak in mind, where a sign posted on the day of voting sways them to vote one way or the other?

    November 6, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
    • ol cranky

      well, the republicans have now complained that murals of Obama in public schools in Philly and Ohio are democrats suppressing the republican vote, so I guess so

      November 6, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
  10. kb

    When I looked and saw my polling place was a church this year, my first reaction was: isn't that great! so much more convient then someone's garage where I have been stuck the last few years. And it was (I voted there this morning). I'm not very religious (am prochoice, etc.), and it wasn't a church of my faith, and had 0 qualms. Never even occurred to me. This is a non-issue.

    November 6, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
    • OTOH


      Nice that it works for you... not so with many folks who are quite superst'itious, gullible and easily led.

      November 6, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  11. mike

    Let me get a tissue for you. Oh, grow up you big baby. Snap out of it. Move out of your parents house. Do your own laundry. Try to make a life for yourself.

    November 6, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
  12. Richard

    I'm sorry but this is just being a bit silly. If you're suddenly "Turned around" in your opinions from a religious symbol or poster as you walk to the ballot box, you obviously weren't too firm in your convictions. We've been blasted nonstop with political ads for months now, which is far more offensive (and unfortunately, effective) than a simple locale issue like this writer brings up.

    To put it another way, would you be offended if I asked CNN.com to stop writing so many atheist points of view articles and displayed them on their front page? They could be viewed by anyone there, and it could influence their way of thinking.

    November 6, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • Ralter Wonchite

      You do realize that there are quite a few people who go to vote with no idea what all those propositions mean, and who most of the candidates ae, and have no clue what either president is actually all about, right? The decideds won't be swayed, but there are actually undeccideds who will choose based on the lawn sign they see on the way, or the conversation they heard outside.

      Don't assume that voters all have done their due diligence – a great many haven't, and they are the ones who could go into a church and make their decision based on a mood they don't even realize has come over them.

      Yes, they are idiots, but haven't you lived long enough to realize that there are a lot of idiots in this world?

      November 6, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • testmo

      public polling places have to be impartial. they can't have banners for one way or another. can't do anything to talk to you or impress you with anything. once you are inside it is a virtual vacuum. on the other side there is a local catholic church that is a polling location. has the catholic church been silent the past year? is the catholic church impartial? you don't think they are trying to impress upon people their views – on say Obama, gay marriage, women's right to choose? Should be illegal. Should have always been illegal

      November 6, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
    • brian

      i agree this is a stupid thing to be putting on a news website. but i agree lets not have voting in churches, but lets not allow voting in any gov building. honestly lets quit being so ignorant. this country is based on religion and freedom.

      November 6, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
  13. RV1982

    Only problem is in some rural areas there are no other relatively close buildings for polling stations. Consolidation of rural schools is probably a factor.

    November 6, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • Ronald Regonzo

      Not to mention pansies and atheists avoid churches like the lepers pansies and atheists are. Good all around, good for Republicans and good for America. Romney / Ryan 2012

      November 6, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • Emmanuel Goldstein

      Ronald–If the choice is between 'pansie' or 'guy who believes rain happens because a magic man in the sky goes pee-pee', I think i'd rather be a pansie.

      November 6, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  14. Bill


    November 6, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
  15. jd

    I voted at a church and absolutely nothing like what is being said here happened.
    Thats my take

    November 6, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
    • DJ

      Google "anecdotal evidence" and learn why it is so misleading and inaccurate.

      November 6, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • Ronald Regonzo

      When you vote church you vote Republican. There are only two choices Republican or sinners. Romney / Ryan 2012

      November 6, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
  16. ALH

    While I don't live there anymore, I'm from a very small township in Iowa. If that precinct doesn't vote in a church, they'll be voting in someone's house. There is nowhere else. It's no more a political statement to vote in that little country church, the only one there, than if they were voting in a government building. It's simply a matter of logistics.

    November 6, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  17. Maie MD

    for somebody who embodies that look of rethug how dare you!!! graham took the mormon cult off his website after getting money from the twit for his church.

    November 6, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • Lisa

      If you are going to reply in phrases at least make them intelligible. Many people including myself do not know what a rethug is and you sure like to judge a book by its cover. That theme is the way most Americans operate–judging a book by its cover, going on sound bites , nasty slogans and admit it–this country is still down right racist. You may as well be widdling (sp?) sitting in front of a barber shop judging humanity and the intentions of our government while you have Fox New blaring in the background.

      November 6, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
  18. Brampt

    “And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be brought to ruin. And the kingdom itself will not be passed on to any other people. It will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, and it itself will stand to times indefinite. Dan 2:44
    “The kingdom of the world did become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will rule as king forever and ever.” Rev 11:15
    I dont know how a religious person can say such thing like " vote, the future is in your hands", if God will establish his kindom on earth... I guess this Reveend is look for the HOLY PROFIT!!

    November 6, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Then why bother working? Why bother to do anything at all, if all is in your god's hands?

      What do you propose we all do? Sit on our rears and wait for manna from heaven?

      November 6, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • Solution


      Y'all just put "Jesus" as a write-in on your ballot then. See if he shows up for the Inauguration.

      November 6, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • Brampt

      Tom Tom – as a Christian and a supporter of Gods kingdom, my obligation now is to do my best to be a good citizen, with my actions, demonstrating that I " love my neighbours". Your obligation is to vote , conservative or republican, to hope on men, and to live in dought of what the future holds, and hopefully live as a good Conservitive or Repulican citizen.

      November 6, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
  19. Liam Pennington

    In the United Kingdom, where I'm from, almost all polling stations (places) are in churches. I've voted inside a church of almost all denominations to be honest!

    I can't see any serious problem with voting in a 'place of God'. Making a democratic decision is not exactly against Christian teaching.

    November 6, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • Just Curious

      Are religions as active in politics as they are here? I don't get the impression that you have many religious figures publicly telling people how to vote. Do they claim that every freaking natural occurance is God's vengeance for whatever weird cause pops into their head?

      We really get a lot of that here. I thought Europe had a lot less of that nonsense.

      November 6, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • Mittology

      Liam, you don't have regular attempts to have the 10 commandments displayed on public buildings, school curricili changed to remove critical thinking and any science that debunks creationism; apart from NI there's not much friction between religions.

      November 6, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • Mittology

      Oh and how could I forget the intimidation and occasional murder of abortion clinic workers.

      November 6, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • Ronald Regonzo

      A murder to prevent mass murder, sounds like a misdemeanor under president Romney, possibly just a $100 fine and costs would suffice for penalty. Romney / Ryan 2012

      November 6, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • The Ghost of Dan Quayle

      Regonzo, you camel-toed saggy-man-boobs possum molester! That is such a god damn lie!

      Everyone knows that under Romney there will be a $100 bounty on abortion doctors. $200 on gays. $400 on married gays. Payable to the Mormon Church so they can recooup their Prop 8 costs.

      November 6, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • Ronald Regonzo

      You are a fraud no self respecting Republican would use language like that. Pansies are not gay, they are an abomination. We are not stupid, when you shoot these undesirables they do leave a mess, someone needs to pay for clean up especially the pansies, most are diseased you know. Don't expect a bounty for doing your civic duty."Mormons -do-your- duty" .Romney / Ryan 2012

      November 6, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • Ralter Wonchite

      "Making a democratic decision is not exactly against Christian teaching."

      Actually, there is nothing in Christianity that supports democratic behavior at all. The Bible assumes worldly autoocrats and a heavenly autocrat, but I don't recall any mention of anything even remotely democratic in Christianity. Indeed, I have never heard of churches that operate on a vote/popular opinion basis.

      November 6, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
  20. txrbt

    What's next jackboot, cover all religious insignias one may pass on the way to the voting hall?

    November 6, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • Mittology

      Great idea especially if it's permanent. Can you do anything about those bloody bells on a Sunday?

      November 6, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
    • Bet

      Yes! Then, after the election, burn the mother down.

      November 6, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
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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.