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.

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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. Peter

    Thought the reason they shifted moving voting centers to churches was so that those people convicted or accused as child predators / molestors can still vote and not have to go within whatever distance of a school.... knowing that there's child predators or similar in your district, would you want them being able to hang out at a polling place by your kid's school? I don't see it as a church, I see it as some place where they were kind enough to offer up their space to allow us to vote in quiet.

    November 6, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      What kindly people can be said if a church meeting or courtroom proceedings were held in a baroom as was once the case in early American small towns' history? Where the people back then 'non-phobic' back then when they did such things?

      November 6, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • W247

      Peter – good point.

      November 6, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • MCR

      Shouldn't that be a use for absentee ballots?

      November 6, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • MCR

      @God's Oldest, Back when I was in college the school provided free beer to anyone who voted in the campus elections. Ah, the days...

      November 6, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  2. Ken

    While you are gripping about Churches.. Add Schools to it while you are at it. Back in the day they used Fire Stations.

    November 6, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  3. RZ70

    In this day and age, if your vote is that easily swayed by something you saw next to the voting machine, you probably shouldn't be allowed to vote.

    As for the author of this piece...
    And the concern here is what? That religion might take over America? No. No, it won't. Why not? Too many factions. "If you're not a member of THIS religion, you're not going to heave." "No... if you're not a member of OUR religion you're not going to heave."

    There is no grand principle at play here; no virtue of a 'pure' democratic process in play. Polictics is just legalized corruption. Spare me your 'no fair' call for the day when our many layers of government no longer try to put a multi-billion dollar road project on the same bill as a school funding initiative.

    You're just a small man with a small agenda. Maybe you're angry at God. Maybe you're angry with someone who believes in God. Maybe you just have so little that you stand for on your own that you have invent an issue. In any case, find something real and relevant to care about.

    November 6, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Ken

      Perhaps his religon doesn't him allow in certain churches.... Then again.. He might even be athiest

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

      DId you two perhaps miss the Rev. in front of his name? Seriously, you disagree, then you make all kinds of stupid assumptions without bothering to find out anything about a highly prominent public figure?

      November 6, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • We

      RZ70, you don't read much, do you? Right up front the story begins with an editors note, as follows:

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

      Perhaps you should have noticed that before beginning yuor hateful, bigoted diatribe. I would keep you from looking like as much of an ID10T as you look right now.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  4. Apple Bush

    Church is where the very ignorant go to share their stupidity.

    Church is a meeting place to mentally abuse the minds of children.

    Church is where the very stupid escalate their perverted views on science and history.

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

    November 6, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • James

      You need to come out of the closet Apple and admit why you're a heathen.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Mittology

      James, Actually as there is no proof of a god you need to explain why Apple is wrong.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Opposing religion is not completely equivalent to opposing belief in God. Societies that have been tried without religion (recently) have done a A-1 horrible job of administering justice. After the French Revolution, Bolshevism, and fascism I would not be in a real big hurry to try it again.

      In particular the accusations that "churches" as a general class are stupid, brainwashing, etc. are empty. The ONLY reason why our culture has a tradition of liberal education is that education was pushed as a means of understanding religion. Are some churches brainwashing facilities, sure. But those are going to tend very heavily to be the ones led by charismatic figures, and those leaders/wackos pop up with or without the presence of organized religion.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Robbie

      I consider Islam to be the most vile ideology on earth, but I would march proudly into a mosque to vote. Buck up, for goodness sake!

      November 6, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  5. MIkeO

    Honestly, get over you phobia of churches and religion and write about something worhwhile. Churches are one of the many traditional civic gathering spots in many communities and the use of such building does nothing to force a religion on anyone.

    November 6, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Jeff E.

      It does seem funny how CNN's Belief blog frequently seems to be about all the places religion DOESN'T belong.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • JFCanton

      It attracts insecure atheists, apparently.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  6. Red Herring

    It's a building used as a polling station. This is seriously what you're fighting against? Goodness gracious.

    November 6, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • Mittology

      Red. Buildings are "re-purposed" as polling places. How about we use abattoirs? The church thing doesn't trouble me but I could see a christian not wanting to go to a mosque to vote and vice versa so then the choices tend to be state-owned buildings and schools are the obvious candidate.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  7. The Truth

    We should be able to pay our taxes through a secure government website where we can also cast out vote and see it when we log into the website along with every other name and vote in America. But i'm sure the conservatives will gnash their teeth and yell and scream about election fraud that doesn't exist except for the republican tactics of trying to restrict segments of society from voting.

    If they want a voter ID law then I want to request a voter IQ test. Every single person casting their vote should at least understand the basics of how our government works so they know what they are voting for.

    November 6, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  8. Kris Baker

    Following your line of argument, the same could be said of voting in a school. What if there was an initiative on the ballot to raise taxes to increase school funding. Would a person who would be against the initiative by uncomfortable voting in a school?

    November 6, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • theala

      No, because schools don't raise the spectre of religious condemnation that churches do. People are uncomfortable in Churches becasue they feel scrutinized; that scrutiny doesn't occur in a school.

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

      Theala – are you kidding me? No scrutiny in schools? Have you ever been to a PTA meeting with some of those school moms and teachers, sizing you up and making assumptions on how good of a parent you are??

      November 6, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  9. Mark

    So churches are not to be used because someone feels uncomfortable voting his/her conscience? AND.... if we use them, they should play by the same rules? How about the BIG freaking mural of Obama in Philly today at the precinct in Ward 35???? How about that? You guys that throw rocks, usually wreck something of your own. Should we keep the pastors away too since they may intimidate voters? WOW!! Glad I asked. What about the Black Panthers on the scene AGAIN this year???? I'm so glad there are Retired Navy Seals that are there TOO!!! Let's see the Panthers get a little frisky with them. You anti-religious, anti-right guys are so full of yourselves...all of the time!!! Problem is, you cant keep your own doorstep clean before something goes awry for you! You are both ignorant and worthless in your perceptions. We are guaranteed a right to vote, regardless of how that sits with others. For some reason in our country, we have a pansy way of thinking and stopped saying what we mean in front of people. Standing up for whats right. SIr.... you are whats wrong!

    November 6, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      Reign in your self-righteous indignation. Your martyr complex doesn't really hold much weight.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  10. God's Oldest Dreamer

    Chess anyone?

    The 'divisioning' and 'separations' of king-to-pawns' 'stylizationalizing' are but proving out to be many political/religious/social ploys ever to be maneuvering for sound positionings upon a 'marked-for-life' board.

    November 6, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  11. Logan

    Why do people have to vote in schools in Philly with obamas ugly mug plastered on the walls. Every state should have early voting that takes place at a totally neutral site. Schools are dens of liberalism. Posters promoting planned parenthood, gay rights etc.. Both sides suffer when voting takes place at sites that are not neutral!

    November 6, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Wes Scott

      Logan, it would be extremely difficult to argue against your characterization of schools as being "dens of liberalism." It is a fact that the more educated and intelligent people are the more they tend to be liberal, and the less educated and more ignorant people are the more they tend to be conservative.

      November 6, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • W247

      Wes – well that is the most ignorant stereo-typical comment I have ever heard. Who else do you stereo-type and judge? What a self-righteous snob you are.

      November 6, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  12. RobK

    Republican election observer in Detroit threatened with gun. Chicago election judge blatantly wears Obama cap and gives voters multiple ballots. Florida polling place has large Obama poster. Democrat dirty tricks escalating.

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

      Obama is losing and his party knows it, they will do anything to try and steal this election.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • PCAT

      E-voting machines owned by Bain Capital, E-voting machines in Ohio owned by Trigg Romney, and let us not forget those hanging chads in Florida from 2000...keep on thinking that the LIBERAL machine is out to get you when really you are VERY incorrect. A poster doesn't electronically record your vote, a machine owned by Bain Capital does.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Wes Scott

      Logan, polls have closed in no states and no state has reported anyr esults yet. So, I have two questions for you.

      (1) Exactly HOW do yuo know that Obama is losing?

      (2) When Obama wins are you going to join Ted Nugent and either be "dead or in jail"?

      November 6, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  13. Kiru

    I've been voting at a church for the last few years and honestly never thougth about it being at a church. It is in a back hall that looks more like a classroom than anything church related. We live in a semi- rural district and there is no community center, fire station, or large commerical buildings. There is now a new school, but honestly the church is more convenient and closer to the more populated parts of the community.
    I wouldn't care if it were a temple, mosque, union hall, or tribal building. They are doing it right.

    November 6, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
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    November 6, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
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      November 6, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  15. Meatwad

    I want to vote in a church so the Holy Spirit can talk to me about legalizing marijuana.

    November 6, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  16. The Truth

    I'm fine with Churches being used for voting, but they should automaticaly lose their tax exempt status if they choose to do so.

    We say we are a nation of freedom. What if as a black person the only place you could cast your vote was inside the KKK headquaretrs? Would you be more or less inclined to vote? What if as a white person you had to go into downtown harlem to cast your vote? Would you feel more or less likely to cast your ballot? Or as a conservative Christian, what if the only place you could vote was inside a planned parenthood, would you be more or less likely to vote? Think about it you morons... Get the polls out of churches or get rid of their tax exempt status.

    November 6, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • RobK

      Why should they lose their tax exempt status? That makes no sense. They are providing a service to the community. Perhaps the government should rent halls for voting using tax dollars. But wait, you probably don't pay taxes, so you don't care. That's why you are voting for Obama.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • The Truth

      I likely pay more in taxes than you do Rob and would be one of those effected by the Bush tax cuts. If the churches could guarantee non-partisan behavior then I could almost agree with you, however they cannot and will not, so the point is moot. Of course I do not believe any Church, regardless of election participation, should be tax exempt. They should have to go through the same process as any non-profit organization does for tax exempt status which includes showing where all donations come from and what they are used for. They should show exactly what each priest is paid by those tax exempt dollars and how much is spent on church functions as well as how much is spent paying the victims of their abuse. The Catholic Church has spent over $2,000,000,000, yes that's $2 BILLION on paying victims familys. So they get $2 billion tax free and then give it to children they buggered, how the fvck does that happen without anyone saying anything?

      November 6, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  17. Rick

    Lynn – This article isn't even worthy of space on a used roll of toilet paper. This is TRULY MINDLESS drivel. !!!!!

    November 6, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • tomini

      I agree, these same people who object to churches say nothing about schools who have posters or murals of the president on their walls. If you can't go in and vote without being so easily influenced or you are so weak willed that you will change your opinion so easily, maybe you shouldn't vote.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  18. Thomas

    I do early voting because I refuse to go inside a church and vote. Why do I want to hang out in some of the worst places of evil there is in the world?

    November 6, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • Rick

      Probably because you are retarded.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Thomas, agree 100%

      November 6, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • The Truth

      Exactly, who would want to be associated with such a mental disease I do not know. But then again, if you have the disease already there is likely a herding mentality that forces them to gravitate to their religious icons no matter what they are doing.

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

    mama k, you are a-okay.

    November 6, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  20. mama k

    If there ever was anything that should be kept secular in the U.S. in every sense of the word, including location, it is the process of voting. It was most likely very intimidating for people to vote around the time of our founding, because different Christian sects were fighting with one another. People were hanging Quakers in Massachusetts; Anglicans were persecuting Baptists in Virginia and other places. This infuriated the key founders of our government, and so they went to work right away to make the 1st Amendment to the Constitution to address the issue of separation of church and state.

    The 1st Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, but through its Establishment Clause, prohibits the establishment of a state religion and over-influence of religion on government. The 1963 Supreme Court case regarding mandated Bible readings in public schools (ruled unconstitutional) is an example of the application of the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment. It is for the benefit of all that these measures are still in place today. I would argue for the same reason, voting should not take place in houses of worship.

    During his presidency, James Madison vetoed two bills that he believed would violate the separation of church and state. He also came to oppose the long-established practice of employing chaplains at public expense in the House of Representatives and Senate on the grounds that it violated the separation of church and state and the principles of religious freedom**. Starting from their anger over feuding Christian sects in their home state, until the end of their lives, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were fierce promoters of the separation of church and state.
    Who was James Madison? He was the 4th President of the United States and the chief architect of the U.S. Constitution.

    ** Library of Congress – James Madison Papers – Detached memorandum, ca. 1823.

    November 6, 2012 at 1:04 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.