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.

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. Call Em Like I See Em

    Once again "Big Religion" spreads her legs like the woman of ill repute that she is and opens wide to receive her lover, "Big Government".

    Even those who TRULY adhere to the Bible realize the failure of human governments. According to their own Savior, Jesus Christ, he had a Kingdom that was going to put an end to all other kingdoms (Daniel 2:44). That being the case why do they have ANYTHING at all to do with politics? Perhaps they should actually read their "holy" scriptures and see its wisdom when it says at Psalm 146:3 – "Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save."

    November 6, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
  2. Jessie

    I refuse to vote if the voting location is in a church. Instead I early or absentee vote. There are enough public locations from schools to rec centers to a local library where voting locations can be held. Having them in a church is a smack in the face to everyone, christian and non.

    November 6, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
  3. Maire

    Interesting aside: Churches are widely used as polling places in the Netherlands as well. In a recent Dutch national election there was a minor uproar because some polling places were being put in mosques. The people who were against the latter were cast as Islamophobic and anti-diversity. Here in America when you decry polling places in churches, you're progressive and enlightened. I wonder: if this article were called 'Stop using mosques as polling places,' would that be hailed as progressive? Methinks not.

    November 6, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
    • MCR

      That's because it would be people saying "Stop using mosques and stick to churches." If people were saying "Stop using both mosques and churches" that would be another story.

      November 6, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
  4. aaron

    As a reverend, you should know that the church isn't a building.

    November 6, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
    • Scotchguard

      What you've said in no way negates the points the author makes.

      November 6, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
  5. J Johnson

    THANK YOU!!!

    I went to the civic center today to vote as that is where I guessed voting would be held. The civic center here in Laguna Hills, CA is a huge brand new million+ (PLUS!) dollar project that Laguna Hills, a city a mile by a mile, honestly just did not need. Besides that, After I asked if voting was held there I was directed to crossroads church as the voting location. On my drive over to the church I became increasingly confused. I just couldn't believe it would be at a church! If it was the Mormon church which Romney is affiliated it would have been all over the news...then again perhaps not. I pull into the church property, right next to the COURT house!, up the small winding road and in a small church portable with large church banners on it was a small voting sign right next to "church parking only". I personally think this is wrong on so many levels. I had never in all my time living in Laguna Hills, and my parenting living and voting in Laguna Hills, and their parents living and voting in Laguna Hills – have never heard of voting at a church! There are sooooo many other places. It is just not appropriate.

    November 6, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
    • Fred Rubble

      Welcome to Orange County, J!

      November 6, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
  6. GK

    Why not just get rid of churches period? That's what the loudest of loudmouth liberal atheists want to do. It worked fine in Communist Russia.

    November 6, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
  7. Jeffery Boes

    In our area, churches have taken over from public schools as polling places because the schools are worried about security. The challenge is finding public spaces that aren't in use on a Tuesday. Some of this would be alleviated if we stopped voting like our great-great-grandfathers did: whytuesday.org.

    November 6, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
    • John In WNY

      I would agree that we shouldn't vote on Tuesday, or actually in November.

      Personally I support moving election day to April 15th so that those that love spending our money have to campaign to the public when the public is seeing how much these same officials are taking from them.

      November 6, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
  8. cadet

    I am not overly religious myself, but am required to vote in a church, which is not associated with my religious belief system. I am by no means feel threatened by being in a different church than my own and does not sway how I will vote. I fail to see why atheists should be so upset, unless they are afraid that somehow being in a church building will convert them. Same kind of thing for the religious type, what is there to be afraid of voting in a different church than your own? Are you that weak in your own faith that you are afraid that you will be converted?

    November 6, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
    • Proud Atheist

      what an idiot... You didn't even read the article! The point was that the churches can advertise their stand on the issues in their buildings and affect the outcome of the election. It had nothing to do with people worrying about being "converted". Please read the article before voicing an opinion.

      November 6, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
    • shsh

      I'm not an atheist and I also do not feel threatened - but it's true that it's a challenge to vote in a place where there are pictures of bloody fetuses adorning the walls and religious propaganda around the voting place. Religious groups have every right to do this on their property, of course - it's a free country after all. But this kind of proselytizing at an election site is inappropriate, so count me on the side of removing places of worship from the list of polling places. And to the person who said that in her/his voting place (in a church) the polling place was down a hall by the kitchen, well that's all well and good, but that's not the experience of many, many other voters.

      November 6, 2012 at 10:09 pm |
  9. stillachristian

    I cannot believe this person. Our small church is a voting place. It is in back of the church in the kitchen. There is a hallway they cannot see down and two bathrooms, that's it. The voting people allow no church literature in the room. It could be anywhere. We see ourselves as helping the community. There is no referendum in our church. I attend a church where I have the freedom to take care of my body as I see fit. We have people of different lifestyles attending also. Not all churches think like super conservatiives but I wish both political parties would have the same agendas. Freedom of choice . I worked at the library in our community and there is no where to vote. In small towns you sometimes have small choices.

    November 6, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
    • Fred Rubble

      How would you feel voting in a Planned Parenthood office, or a Mosque? Even if they took the literature away?

      November 6, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
  10. Mrs. Mc

    I agree that churches are not an appropriate place for voting. There are myriad places available, from public buildings to businesses with unused space. It is even more crucial to separate such a civic right from a religious context when you are in an area where the churches preach politics from the pulpet, as they frequently do here in the south.

    November 6, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
  11. Evangelical

    Get government out of religion, but get religion back in government!

    November 6, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
    • midwest rail


      November 6, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
    • Chutzpah

      reight... and then let that government get its remote probe droid back in your vejina

      November 6, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
    • nope



      November 6, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
    • Proud Atheist

      Go back to Iran!

      November 6, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
    • shsh

      Religion does not belong in government. Unless you live in Iran.

      November 6, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
  12. John in Smyrna

    As a militant atheist, I am not at all intimidated by voting in a church. In fact, I consider it a challenge to see just how offensive I can be to the church's staff.

    November 6, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
    • Steve in Colorado

      John, Seeing how offensive you can be to another human being doesn't make you a militant atheist, it just makes you an a$$.

      November 6, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
    • shsh

      You sure do give atheists a bad name. Courtesy should be practiced by everyone.

      November 6, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
  13. StuporDave

    If we fail to abolish misleading campaign ads, there's absolutely no reason to stop using churches as polling places, regardless of how (or if) parishioners might be influenced. After all, many houses of worship service the less affluent among us, who, quite frankly, need a tool to offset the excessive effect upon society of those whose economic DNA reeks of money worship.

    November 6, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
  14. MarkP

    When you are in and out in 5 mins, it doesn't matter as much, but it sucks. But I had to sit there for 45 mins inside a curch, on a pew, with a Bible in front of me. I will file a complaint with my election supervisor. I have only been to church for weddings and memorial services ... and voting.

    November 6, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
    • Evangelical

      Oh my! The humanity! You had to sit in a pew for 45 minutes with a Bible in front of you. You obviously need to get your heart right with God.

      November 6, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
    • JJ

      Did you have to view some gory scene of a hippie hanging on a stick? That cult is so repugnant.

      November 6, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      It could have been worse. You might have had to sit near Eva, the fart-smeller.

      November 6, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
  15. David

    Yet it's perfectly fine to have polling places in a Philadelphia school where President Obama's painting is splashed up on the wall right next to the voting booths...okkkkkk

    November 6, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
    • midwest rail

      Obviously, it's not fine – the mural was covered shortly after voting began and that story was widely publicized.

      November 6, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
  16. Evangelical

    This Lynn has the audacity to call himself a minister. The only church he is qualified to minister in is the church of satan. He and his organization has done nothing but bash American values. He is very anti-American. People for the American Way are actually People for the Communist Way.

    November 6, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
    • JJ

      Spoken like a True Talibangelical.

      November 6, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
    • Pam

      Wow. You are a nasty, bigoted lunatic! This intelligent man is making a very good point and it's nice to see someone in religion who's not a hatred filled weirdo. It's people like you that make religion repulsive to smart people. Well, I guess you losers have to have something to cling to and hatred is your "religion".

      November 6, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • Evangelical

      Exactly who do I hate? I'm sorry, but calling out someone who is posing as a minister and whose organization is a de facto communist organization is not hate. You need to get your heart right with God. You are the one doing the hating.

      November 6, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
    • dhkeith


      Exactly who do I hate? I'm sorry, but calling out someone who is posing as a minister and whose organization is a de facto communist organization is not hate. You need to get your heart right with God. You are the one doing the hating."

      Let me see if I can answer your question. To be succinct, you hate everyone who doesn't believe in your particular brand of poison. You are NOT "calling out" anyone; you are making unsubstansiated accusations of a political ideology that died with the Soviet Union snd you are flat lying when you deny this author his status as a minister. I would strongly suggest you re-read your last two sentences and follow your own advice. Oh, and may the gods help you find peace in your poisoned soul.

      November 6, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
    • Evangelical

      dhKeith, when was the last time you actually prayed? If you did you would see that Lynn is in error in so many of his beliefs. You also need to get your heart right with God.

      November 6, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
    • hawaiiguest


      Don't bother with Evangelical. He's either a worthless poe, or a worthless zealot. Either way he's worthless.

      November 6, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Go blow it out your azz, Eva, you fraud. You're not fooling anyone.

      November 6, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
    • Bet

      Go home, Eva, you're drunk.

      November 6, 2012 at 10:31 pm |
  17. oldbones24

    This has been one of my biggest pet peeves. When I was a child schools closed on election day and became polling places. As children we understood that voting was very important, almost as much as Christmas or Thanksgiving because we got the day off every two years. This year in our state most of the polling places are in the churches, who also preach politics, and I think that is very wrong. What of the people who's religion sees it as a defilement to enter another religions church? Are they to be forced use an absentee ballot? Sounds a little Jim Crow to me. I think the USA is reverting back into the early stages of the inquisition, when the church ran the government.

    November 6, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
  18. batjones

    Rev Lynn – Although you make good points about the need for neutrality at polling places, t is the responsibility of the election officials to manage. You should turn the complaints over to the respective municipal and county clerks or board of elections supervisors. I think you will find that the complaints are relatively small. Quite often the neighborhood church, synagogue, mosque or temple is the only willing building that is accessible to the handicap for twelve hours on a Tuesday.

    November 6, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
    • profmom

      Libraries, post offices, park houses, schools, malls, are also handicap accessible and politically neutral. Since churches have a theological stake in social issues like gay marriage, abortion, etc., they should graciously decline the use of their facilities on the grounds of conflict of interest.

      November 6, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
  19. SATCH

    The best day's of this planet will be the end of organized religion. If you want to believe in something "bigger", fine but as they say "Every King need his Bishops (to control the ignorant and uneducated). Ever wonder why the big cities are the least religious? Because the intelligence level is much higher.

    November 6, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
    • geno

      Satch, if the intelligence level is muc higher in the big cities, you must live WAY WAY out in the country!

      November 6, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • bob

      Its proven that belief in religion goes down as intelligence rises

      2 + 2 does not = 3 this means the dumber the person the more likely to believe in religion. which means
      its all BS. Do you really think there where talking snakes and donkeys ?

      November 6, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
  20. Cheryl Neddo

    I felt very uncomfortable having to go to a Roman Catholic church to cast my vote.I feel I was forced to go somewhere I would never choose to go for myself.

    November 6, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
    • Evangelical

      Conscience bothered you?

      November 6, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • tokencode

      Its not an issue of conscience, the catholic church harbors pedophiles and is one of the riches organizations on earth but hoardes their wealth rather than donating it to the poort. Who wouldn't be creeped out by having to go there?

      November 6, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • oldbones24

      Cheryl – you were forced to go against your beliefs, this is NOT religious freedom! Notice the sarcastic crap from the "privileged" rightwing.

      November 6, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
    • JJ

      I felt uncomfortable too. All I could think of was how many little boys had been raped within these walls.

      November 6, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • Darnell

      I completely agree. I thought we were supposed to have a division between church and state. And for the past several years I have had to go into a church to cast my vote. What ever happened to going to the local library or the gym of a school. Im sure they could use the extra money for hosting the party. You know they get paid for having it there right? Its not right to force people to go into a church who otherwise would never have gone into one. This should be changed immediately.

      November 6, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • Evangelical

      I still say it is conscience. You don't want anything to do with religion, and when you have to enter a church, you are under conviction by the Holy Spirit.

      November 6, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I still say you're a complete bug-fvcking moron, Eva. Because that's exactly what you are.

      November 6, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
    • Bet

      Eva, no one cares what you think.

      November 6, 2012 at 10:36 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.