My Take: Stop using churches as polling places
The author says that churches that act as polling places can sway voters.
November 6th, 2012
09:19 AM ET

My Take: Stop using churches as polling places

Editor’s note: The Rev. Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

By Barry W. Lynn, Special to CNN

I live in Maryland, where we have a lot of controversial questions on Tuesday's ballot, including referenda on marriage equality, the rights of immigrants and the expansion of gambling.

Many churches and other houses of worship have taken stands on these issues and lots of others, which is their prerogative. Although federal law prohibits churches from endorsing or opposing candidates, they have the right to speak out on ballot referenda and on other issues, from abortion to zoning.

All of this church-based political activity makes me uneasy about casting ballots in houses of worship, especially those festooned with political signs. And yet today, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of churches around the country are being pressed into service as polling places.

At Americans United for Separation of Church and State, we get a steady stream of calls about this phenomenon every election season. Some complain of being forced to cast their ballot in a house of worship when there’s a nearby public school, library or community center that could just as easily act as a polling place.

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We shouldn’t dismiss these concerns as whining from an overly sensitive band of people who are religion-phobic. These concerns are legitimate. And some intriguing studies even suggest that voting in a church might influence voters.

The American Humanist Association, which filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against voting in churches in Florida, cited a recent Baylor University study published in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion that found that people in the Netherlands and England reported more conservative views to a pollster when in the vicinity of a church.

“[The] important finding here,” said the study’s co-author, Wade Rowatt, “is that people near a religious building reported slightly but significantly more conservative social and political attitudes than similar people near a government building.”

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An earlier study by Stanford University reported a similar effect. “Voting in a church could activate norms of following church doctrine,” said Jonah Berger, a Stanford researcher. “Such effects may even occur outside an individual’s awareness.”

In Maryland, this might mean that an on-the-fence voter facing the marriage equality question might be pushed to vote no by something as simple as a sign or pamphlet in the church/polling place. Such material might even affect a soft voter’s candidate choices.

How is this possible? Psychologists call it “priming,” the idea that even subtle visual or verbal cues can affect human behavior.

More studies need to be done to validate and explain this phenomenon. In the meantime it would make sense to avoid using churches as polling places. Neutral sites should always be preferred.

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There are other reasons to skip casting ballots in the basilica.

I’ve talked with people who describe their unease voting on an abortion-related referendum in a Catholic church, where they may be surrounded by posters depicting abortion as a grisly holocaust. Others say they don’t want to back an abortion-rights candidate in a church that is known for anti-abortion activism.

No public library, public school or town hall would display such material next to the voting machines. No government building would have a towering cross in the voting area.

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Many of those who have contacted us about this have reported that churches will not remove this material and that pastors argue that they have a right to keep it up.

As churches become more aggressive in the political arena, the argument that they can be neutral sites for voting, a concept that has been embraced by some courts, comes up short.

I’ve even talked with atheists, Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians who don’t want to exercise a basic constitutional right in a church. These people have nothing against Christianity; they simply don’t believe that a fundamental democratic right should hinge on their willingness to enter a church. (And yes, most of the houses of worship used as polling places are Christian churches.)

People who support using churches as polling places often point to the need to maximize the number of polling locations to increase turnout. That’s a laudable goal, but there are many ways to do this that don’t rely on using churches, like early voting and voting by mail.

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For those who prefer to show up in person on Election Day, there are plenty of schools, libraries, town halls and civic centers to meet the need for polling centers. In small towns and rural areas, well-known commercial sites would make better polling places than churches.

If there is absolutely no other option than voting in churches, I recommend that election officials make it clear to officials at the church that they must play by the same rules as every other site.

That means no politicking inside a certain zone. And the area where the voting occurs should be cleansed of all religious symbols and political material. The voting area should be as neutral as possible.

Voting is every Americans right, some would say duty. Let’s do all we can to avoid making people feel unwelcome at the ballot box.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Barry W. Lynn.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: 2012 Election • Church • Church and state • Politics

soundoff (1,507 Responses)
  1. Bobby

    So silly. So folks cannot think for themselves while in a church? My little town uses the church because it is the largest building we have. I don't attend it. I don't care. I can vote under a tent out in the cow pasture if that is where voting is moved. Get over yourself.

    November 6, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  2. M Miller

    What about voting in a city like New York that is liberal. As a conservative that might make me feel uncomfortable. How about a black panther standing at the door in Philadelphia. I did not enjoy school so that would be aunconfortable place too.

    November 6, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  3. Nospam

    Maybe the reason they find more conservative people near places of worship, is because they tend to like living near places of worship. Talk about steering the findings to what you want.

    Yet another poor article on CNN.

    November 6, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  4. DB

    Churches should not be used simply because there may be undue influence or guilt placed upon a voter. On an abortion or gay rights referendum, some religious people who otherwise might support those two issues may feel pressure to vote against them because they are in a "house of god" and may feel a vote for those issues is against god's will. It is subtle, but should not be discounted on how it pressures people.

    November 6, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • W247

      Why would they feel guilty about something they don't believe exists? Where is the guilt coming from? Why are they letting a building make them feel guilty for the choices they make in their lives?

      November 6, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  5. Mike

    Yawn. What a non-issue.

    November 6, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  6. YoozYerBrain

    If you have to vote in a house of supersti tion, use the opportunity to do some educating, LOUDLY! Hang around with atheist literature, t-shirts or signs. Doesn't have to be political, probably better if it isn't! But this is a great opportunity for you to fight the darkness where it lives! This is ju jitsu, take their energy and use it against them. Mmmm, nice!!!

    November 6, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • W247

      It's not ju-jitsu, it's Aikido, re-direct the energy back the way it came from or let it flow around and past you.

      Anyhow, don't be obnoxious or intolerant – that is what you are advocating here.

      November 6, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  7. JJC

    Somehow I get the feeling that all the people saying this is a non-issue, would be the most vocal complaining if they had to vote in a mosque. If churches want to get in the business of endorsing politicians then they need to get out of the business of impartial voting locations. It is that simple.

    November 6, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  8. CAGEY

    You have got to be kidding me. Did you go to vote or worry about where you are voting at? Don't be such a child and concentrate on what your goals are. Signs are everywhere trying to influence you as to how and who you should volte for. If you don't know the issues by now and make up your mind based on these issues, then you are on the losing end anyway!

    November 6, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  9. Atheist Hunter

    If voting in the church bother's you that a pretty sure sign that you're voting for the wrong person! I think all voting should be done in a church for hopes that the Holy Spirit will convict you!

    November 6, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Well there you go. Atheist Hunter has demonstrated why voting in a place where people believe in ghosts and goblins is weird and makes some people uncomfortable.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • StanR

      Shouldn't the holy spirit be able to convict you anywhere? I thought god was ubiquitous?

      November 6, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  10. chris

    OK, lets end polling places in churches...better yet lets not allow polling places in our LIBERAL public schools for the same reason.

    November 6, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • Apple Bush


      I understand not polling in churches, but your comment regarding "liberal" public school does not make sense to me. How does one determine if a public school is liberal, and even if you could, why would that disqualify it as a polling place?

      November 6, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • c

      I doubt school kids on any level think that much about politics.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  11. Apple Bush

    It is smart to be religion-phobic.

    Not recognizing the destructive and repulsive nature of religion is a sign of ignorance.

    November 6, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • BILL

      Apple Bush... take a look at the Philidelphia ward 5 school voting place... you tell me, is this a liberal school? Should this be permitted? what would you say if it were a mural of Romney with some nice quotes to go with it... does this in someway promote one candidate over the other.; liberals are so myopic... unbelievable...

      November 6, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  12. damien

    I should have the right to vote without my skin bubbling up. Or if they would at least move the holy water further away from the voting booths, that would help.

    November 6, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  13. Apple Bush

    Church is where the very ignorant go to share their stupidity

    Church is a meeting place to abuse the minds of the young. Child abuse. Mental and sometimes physical.

    Church is where the very stupid plan to devastate the science curriculum in our schools with their fantasies about creationism.

    It is not acceptable to me to be forced to go to one of these repulsive places. It is wrong.

    November 6, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • James

      Apple Bush, come out of the closet and admit that you are a perverted heathen.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  14. Terry White

    This is really goofy. Churches are generally on public-access roads, have large parking lots, have spacious foyers/lobbies, have kitchen facilities and restroom facilities available, and have handicap access. A building is a building–make it as easy for a voter as possible!

    November 6, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Concerned Citizen

      Agreed, as long as there isn't any members from the church harassing voters or trying to change them last minute then this shouldn't be an issue.

      November 6, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Jkhur

      Wouldn't all of that also apply to your local public school?

      November 6, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Imagine No Religion

      Yep, you're correct. But the same applies to mosques, too. So, let's use mosques for polling stations in 2014, and watch the xians FREAK OUT!!!.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • James

      Concerned Citizen, if you were so concerned, you'd volunteer at the voting polls. Obviously, you have never done so. There are rules about how many feet from the voting polls you need to be to hand out literature on the candidates.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  15. JimD

    My polling place is a Methodist church near me. It used to be in a public grade school. I notice NO difference in the environment where voting occurs and it certainly did not change how I voted. As stated in this blog, there can be issues voting in any location. Bottom line, I do not see this as a big deal.

    November 6, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  16. iminim

    It is rather unusual to enter a church to vote when you really think about it. Almost any area, no matter how rural, has a school, fire station, community meeting hall, library, or court house that could be used instead. While voting in a church may not bother you, imagine if your voting place was moved to a mosque or a temple. Would you feel entirely comfortable going there? Would you fell comfortable entering a free thinkers' meeting location with atheist signs on the walls and atheist literature lying around in order to cast your ballot? What about a Hindu house of worship?

    I would be interested in seeing a followup CNN article about how polling locations are chosen. Likely this varies from region to region. Are the nongovernment locations paid for their use, given reimbursement for utility costs, or do the locations donate use of their facilities free of charge? What is the screening process used in selecting sites? Does accessibility, available parking, central location within the precinct, or cost come into play? If two similar sites are available in the same precinct, what are the deciding factors? There are multiple potential nonreligious voting sites in my precinct, including a large public library, elementary school, part of a state university campus, and a fire station. So why do I vote in a church?

    November 6, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • OTOH

      It's not usually IN the churches... it's in their rec. rooms, where they play Bingo and have potato salad socials.

      Me, I've done absentee ballots for years - it's great.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • K. Schipper

      I think the idea of a follow-up article on how polling places are chosen is a great one. When our precinct is scheduled to vote at the Baptist church, my husband and I vote by mail. Even a neighbor's garage was better.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • iminim

      The church where I vote uses their fellowship hall. The is a flight of stair when you enter. Anyone in a wheelchair or with mobility issues has to vote at the curb & a poll staffer must take materials out to their car. Why is this inaccessible building used when public buildings that are accessible are minutes away? Personally, I vote early at a regional site when given the opportunity. Unfortunently early voting is not usually offered in my area for local elections.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  17. Al

    We should dismiss these concerns as whining from an overly sensitive band of people who are religion-phobic.

    November 6, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  18. SFRich

    Take away the tax-exempt status of all churches and let them campaign, preach, pander and influence voting as they please. Little would change as they already do that, and we could reduce the deficit with all the tax revenue.

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

      Another lie from the atheists. Churches have never endorsed a candidate.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • hawaiiguest



      Oh that was a fucking good one! That's going to keep me laughing all day long.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • iminim

      James, some churches clearly do support a particular candidate. I had the experience of attending a conservative church with a friend before the 2004 elections. The church pulled down a screen & proceeded to play a video montage featuring waving flags & candidates faces originally created for & aired at the Republican National Convention. It was blatant partisanship if I have ever seen it and I was appalled. I have attended a variety of churches and political rallies in my life. Had I not been certain I had entered a church door, I would have thought I was at a political rally. The sermon that followed the montage was all about helping good (i.e. the Republican party) triumph over evil (i.e. the Democratic party).

      Although I am a person with religious belief, I support strict separation of church & state. It exists to help maintain the integrity of the political process by removing influences not answerable to the people. It also protects the church from compromising its own spiritual values in order to gain earthly power. What I saw & heard that day in 2004 was a group of people worshipping a political party instead of God: a church that lost its soul by selling out to politics and the quest for earthly power. Sadly, it was also a harbinger of what would happen in many organized religions in the following years.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  19. Jim

    The ranting opinion of an emotional child lacking maturity this article is.

    If someone is so weak-minded that voting in a church building will influence his/her vote, voting in a school will influence them when they see the political mural of the POTUS or see a poster with Katy Perry on it and we all know who she is voting for and endorsing...

    You weak minded people need to grow up emotionally and mentally.

    November 6, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  20. DAZY

    This article is a ridiculous waste of time completely lacking in any thoughtful analysis or objectivity. Why would CNN continue to print articles written by agenda-driven hacks? If someone votes more conservative while in a church, then that is their own conscience working on them. What's wrong with that? Frankly, churches are convenient and practical options which make perfect sense. I will agree that there should be no political propoganda visible on days where the facility is used to vote, but that's simple enough. The author states his point of view is legitimate and not the overly sensitive rambling of the religious-phobic, but I beg to disagree. All this does is convince me of their paranoid obsessions with anything religious.

    November 6, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
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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.