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. Rainer Braendlein

    (True) Christianity has one great advantage: It is not bigoted.

    Look at Mormons, Baptists, Muslims, Catholics and the like. They only love you if you are a member of their cult or if they want to convert you. They will never love you just because you are a human being with human dignity.

    What manifests human dignity?

    Answer: Jesus Christ died for the whole mankind, for everybody independent from belief, nationality, color, status, etc..

    Of course, someone is only a Christian, if he believes that Christ died also for him, and improves his life through Jesus' power but nevertheless even if he doesn't believe God has expressed his love to him through the sacrifice of his son. I don't have to judge my neighbour for his disbelief but I only have to focus on the fact that God offers love to my neighbour, and I also should offer love.

    My task as a Christian isn't it to convert my neighbour but to love him because God yet loved him so much that God gave his Son for him. True Christian love is independent from the conversion of the neighbour.

    Furthermore at Judgement Day one will only come through when his life has improved. Hence, I cannot insist on my creed but I will be asked how I behaved, and how I treated my fellow human beings.

    Hence, we should favour Christianity because it is the most civilized faith which promotes peace and righteousness among all people.


    November 6, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • Huebert

      The same argument could be made in favor of secular humanism.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • DeeBee

      Usually, the word "hence" is used to indicate that what follows it is a logically determined conclusion that must be reached from the preceding points. I'm not quite sure how you are using it here.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • ZeusDeusMaximus

      @Rainer- you are blatantly anti-American, go to your favorite place of punishment...

      "Religions are all alike – founded upon fables and mythologies." [Thomas Jefferson]

      "The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession. I could never give assent to the long, complicated statements of Christian dogma." [Lincoln]

      "It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds which follows from the advance of science." [Darwin]

      November 6, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • Mittology

      How did you determine that "Christianity is the most civilized faith which promotes peace and righteousness among all people.". Can you provide some comparative examples?

      November 6, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  2. ZeusDeusMaximus

    "The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession. I could never give assent to the long, complicated statements of Christian dogma." [Lincoln]

    "Religions are all alike – founded upon fables and mythologies." [Thomas Jefferson]

    "If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities." [Voltaire]

    "I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own - a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotism." [Einstein]

    "Faith means not wanting to know what is true." [Nietzsche]

    "Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile." [Kurt Vonnegut]

    "Religion is based . . . mainly on fear . . . fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand. . . . My own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race." [Bertrand Russell]

    By the way people, this is a two-way street- if they MAKE you go to a church to vote, there's no reason you can't bring something blatantly atheist with you. ATTACK them where they live, since they force you to be there. Bring the light of reason, confront the ignorance, carry a sign-nothing political, just atheist- and attack them in their houses of darkness! Dont be passive, the forces of superst ition rely on that. ATTACK ATTACK ATTACK them with reason!

    November 6, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • Chris

      Good idea. Lemme dig up my Cradle of Filth "Jesus is a C**t" tshirt...

      November 6, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  3. Free of the chains of religion

    If people have to vote in a church, then I think we should make people vote at Planned Parenthood too.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • guest

      Would you like some cheese with your wine?

      November 6, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • jon

      well said!

      November 6, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  4. DeeBee

    "Anyone uncomfortable with any polling place is always able to vote as absentee."

    This may seem like a reasonable solution to you, but it separates out one aspect of society, based on a political view held by that group, and makes voting more DIFFICULT for that group. That is fundamentally undemocratic.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  5. deebolay

    I have to vote in a evangelical Christian church, and I am very uncomfortable with this. I also am uncomfortable that this church supports many of the more extreme social positions that some GOP candidates suppport, and I am opposed to. All of the schools in my town are closed for the election. We should be able to vote there

    November 6, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • MG

      Just curious, but what is the specific reason you have for being uncomfortable with this? I'm not being confrontational, I really just am curious. I'm definitely not a Christian, but i really couldn't care less if they made me vote from the pulpit of the church. I'm not going to let something that trivial prevent me from exercising my right to vote for who I want to vote for.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  6. rich

    Personally, I feel that schools often have a greater conflict of interest than churches. At least in my area, there are often propositions and measures concerning school funding and such. There are even cases where there is unpublicized (i.e. most people aren't aware of it until the last minute) voting for school bonds that occur in the schools.

    City government buildings are often unable to handle the peak parking and traffic needs for voting. Schools also typically have parking issues. Churches often have a major convenience advantage here, because they have lots of peak parking capacity and are distributed throughout a community.

    I agree that churches should not post any political materials, but requiring them to hide religious symbols that are part of the structure or objects/pictures that are always present seems offensive and hateful. In may cases, I think they are generous to offer their facilities.

    Anyone uncomfortable with any polling place is always able to vote as absentee.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      " I think they are generous to offer their facilities. "

      And I think we are VERY generous to allow them their tax exempt status.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • Eduardo

      Public schools have more conflict of interest than churches? Really? I can't wrap my head around that one. Like being in a school is going to cause me to be afraid to vote against school funding?

      IF churches are are going to serve as polling sites for an increasingly-diverse public, having them cover up their overtly religiously symbols is not hateful at all. It's common sense. Polling places should be as neutral as possible. But it would be easier and better to just use schools, libraries, etc. Those places are already neutral (except for the odd mural of the president that might need to be covered over).

      November 12, 2012 at 4:38 am |
  7. DaveC

    I totally agree with the article. Our polling place used to be in an Episcopalian church until about three years ago when the new pastor couldn't stay away on election day and try to influence people to vote republican. He even went as far as to say God was against democrats. The voting place was moved to our local elementary school and it is a much more friendly atmosphere for both parties.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  8. RLG

    If you think about it, the polling is not in the church itself. it's usually in a cafeteria or other side building. It still may be in the church building, but not in the actual sanctuary.

    Strictly speaking, it's just a building. Like any other.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  9. patch vader

    It is just another building. If you have a problem with non believer guilt or think that god is looking over your shoulder, then get over it. the precint voting place in my neighborhood is a church I do not attend, but the voting staff is secular. I don't see your problem.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Matt

      Really...you don't see the problem of a church being a polling place, and then plastering the walls with their own rhetoric and political posters? Either you're being daft, or your completely biased on the topic.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • patch vader

      Matt- no, I am a straight line thinker- To vote(a) requires passing through a building(b). The objective remains to cast a ballot. My belief system is secure enough that I can enjoy the scenery along the way. Just like most adults.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  10. Matt

    Religion shouldn't be involved in politics, PERIOD. That's why churches have tax exempt status, because they aren't supposed to be involved in the political process. That includes voting. If churches want to push political agendas and be polling areas where they can display their own dogma and rhetoric to voters, they should lose their tax exempt status.

    Of course, the hyper religious want everything. They want to be able to push their close minded social agendas, but they want to keep their privileged tax status as if they were a politically neutral organization.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  11. christopher hitchens

    From it's Christian founding America and the meeting house have walked hand in hand. The church being the center of community and Truth with buildings large enough to accommodate the true Americans, the Christian populace. Might be rough on pansies and atheists but then who gives a sh it about them anyway, we are one nation under God.

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

      "Might be rough on pansies and atheists but then who gives a sh it about them anyway, we are one nation under God."

      Contradiction alert!

      November 6, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • umustbekiddingme

      You are an uneducated idiot. What makes you think you are so much better than non-Christian Americans? It scares me to think that you have an equal opportunity to cast your vote.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • Free of the chains of religion

      It's sad to realize that there are people who are so easily swayed that their thinking changes to conform to the building they are in.

      Personally, I am always amazed that people can actually believe this nonsense.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • Richard Marks

      This country HAD NO Christian founding. It is not now nor was it ever a "Christian" nation. Please tell me you do not vote (with your astounding lack of historical knowledge).

      November 6, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • TheVocalAtheist

      We are not a nation under one God moron. We are a multi-denominational country with many Gods or none at all. Grow a brain or shut-up.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • Frank

      Of course you wold have no problem going into a mosque to vote? Or how about the Scientology center, or a Buddhist temple?
      My guess is that you would complain about this as this One Nation Under God doesn't specify which one of the 2000+ gods we are under.

      But, if I saw my religion being abandoned in droves, I guess I would be a little nervous too.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • Empowered

      Actually the original Pledge of Allegiance as written in August 1892 and published September 8, 1892 in The Youth's Companion, did not include any words referring to God. The original words were: "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." It was in 1954 that the phrase "one nation under God, was added in response to the Communist threat of that time. I personally would love to see the words revert back to the original. There needs to be complete separation of church and state.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • LOL

      I had to laugh at your silly statement. You think you are the "true" Americans? I'd be real surprised if you live up to the standards of the original Americans, who are actually American Indians and they were not Christian denomination. If you want to talk about the founding fathers of the U.S., they wanted freedom of religion, any religion, even no religion. You really need to get over yourself, Christopher. 😉

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

      You guys do realize this is an obvious joke/troll, right? Christopher Hitchens?

      November 6, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  12. 10 Minutes Before the Worm

    Where I live we vote in elementary schools and civic locations. What is this church crap? Really? What kind of country is this. Jeesh.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • W247

      I feel REALLLLY uncomfortable voting in a school, there are several initiatives on our ballot that deal with teacher pay and other educational related issues. If I see these little kids, or these angry teachers, it will sway my vote. It is completely unfair!!!!! I Object!!!! I pout!!!! I complain!!!!

      November 6, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  13. jetman

    what about voting in a school? they also have issues/candidates that they support.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • TheVocalAtheist


      I guess you just don't get it. It's called "separation" of church and state.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • W247

      No VA – you don't get it. The main arguing point for not having polling places in churches is that through the atmosphere of the church, peoples votes may be swayed. The same goes for polling places in schools, my area has a lot of initiatives on the ballot that deal with education reform. By voting in a school, I may be swayed to change my vote.

      However, since I am a pretty stable person with my own opinions, being inside a building for 10 minutes is not going to change my lifestyle or my opinon no matter what the building is.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  14. LittleHero

    I have to vote in an elementary school and I am offended by all the propaganda about sharing! Damn communists!

    November 6, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • Bev

      You mean, like share your crayons in Kindergarden, or do you mean share your point of view, or opinions? You're right, terrible!

      November 6, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  15. Fred Nash

    I could not agree more with this essay.
    For the last 4 elections my polling place has been a very conservative Baptist church here in North Carolina.
    For the Bush/Kerry election, the church had on its sign out front, "Vote for Godly leadership not the UnGodly:
    Soon after that election a large banner (which still stands) was placed over the large door to the building where the actual voting takes place that reads: "One Nation UNDER GOD".
    In 2008, there were voter information packets on the tables for those coming to vote, but ONLY for Republican candidates.

    This year I've already voted early (and in a different location) but you can bet I'll be driving a couple of blocks with my camera to see what sort of Pro-GOP message they have waiting for voters this election.

    If they want to be involved in politics, get all the voting out of churches and start taxing them.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  16. t.sarcastic

    A practice that really makes no sense at all.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  17. Doby

    I'm an atheist and I voted in a church today. The church isn't running the election! As long as they follow the law and don't try campaign in the election area....thankfully they are providing a place for us to do our civic duty.

    November 6, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  18. Sheila

    I voted at a Lutheran Church this morning. Didn't think a thing about it. The building was big enough, had enough parking, and easy access from two main streets. What if we voted at WalMart? What would that make us? Standing for 30 minutes in a church doesn't make you religious, anymore than standing in a bar makes you a drunk.

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

      like 🙂

      November 6, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • TheVocalAtheist

      You didn't think about it because you're a believer?

      November 6, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • MG

      I voted in a church this morning, I'm still an atheist and still voted for the candidates i believe will do the best job.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  19. sandra

    When I voted this morning, I was very uncomfortable voting in a churc – and it is the church I used to belong to! The pictures of Jesus was all that was hanging on the walls, but I felt like I was being pursuaded to agree with that church's teachings! We have plenty of libraries, schools, city halls, fire stations, etc.

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

      Please don't visit any art museum. All those Renaissance paintings of Jesus would surely give you a heart attack!

      November 6, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • W247

      Sandra – do you suffer from ADD? Please don't vote, your opinion is too easily swayed. Do you watch TV? I bet those political ads just wreck havoc on your psychi? "YES ROMNEY" ( change teh channel) "YES OBAMA!" change the channel "WAIT, YES ROMNEY!" ..

      Please, use your common sense.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  20. Meatwad

    I like going to church cuz the grandma's bake cookies and they don't even charge money for them. I like coffee too.

    November 6, 2012 at 10:56 am |
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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.