State/Church FAQ

Church Polling Places

A church is being used as a polling location. Is that legal?

It is a basic principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that the government is prohibited from promoting a specific religious belief. Furthermore, the government cannot compel a citizen to enter a house of worship or profess a particular religious view. Unfortunately, during election seasons many Americans of varying faiths or no faith at all are required to enter a house of worship in order to fulfill the most basic civic duties of all-to vote.

In many places, one-third to one-half of all polling places are churches. If you have to vote in a church, complain! Usually your city or county representative has the authority to suggest changes to polling places. A local rep is more apt than a bureaucrat to respond to a citizen complaint. Suggest secular alternatives (particularly those with handicapped access): libraries, public schools (it's so educational for students to witness Election Day), fire stations, malls, etc. Scout your area for secular facilities which conform to laws governing voting access. If public buildings are not being used, insist they be given priority over church polling places. Even if this abuse does not affect you personally, you may still wish to complain to your city clerk or registrar if this is a growing trend in your area. Churches often take advantage of a captive audience for fundraising purposes as well, hosting bake sales, etc., and enjoy visibility when governments choose them, send out postcards notifying voters to vote in churches and when governments advertise church sites in newspaper ads and government websites. It is a great advantage to be chosen as a polling site. There is also potential for political abuse when local officials are free to chose their own church, for instance, as the polling site. Polling sites are published in newspapers prior to local elections. In some states, polling sites receive public compensation, making this a more serious entanglement.

Generally, courts have upheld the use of churches as polling places as long as there are reasonable alternatives for those objecting to entering a church to vote, such as absentee voting. However, there has only been limited litigation, so this is unsettled law. Furthermore, polling places located in churches should be free from religious imagery.

It is the Foundation’s position that churches should not be used for polling places. These days the Latin cross, the traditional symbol for Christianity, is increasingly seen by many as a symbol of political intimidation. In addition, many churches, especially in the most recent elections, have abused their tax-exempt status by intervening in political campaigns and have clearly signaled to their congregations and the general public who they favor in a given election. Furthermore, across the country there have been numerous cases of churches exploiting their position as polling sites to promote their churches or causes (i.e., handing out literature on the church, signing up voters to participate in bible studies, and posting anti-abortion signs near voting booths).

If you are forced to vote in a church, take notes or photographs, especially if you are forced to walk by signs, brochures or posters which would influence voters on issues such as gay rights or abortion. You have the right to vote in an auditorium or hall free of religious messages, crucifixes, etc. Document such violations when you complain to local officials. FFRF has taken complaints on election laws being violated when churches have handed out self-promotional "goodie bags," allowed members of the congregation to hand out materials to voters waiting in line, or otherwise violated state (or local) election laws.

FFRF members have been successful in getting officials to choose secular over religious sites. Being a "squeaky wheel," doing homework about available alternatives, and working with local government representatives can yield results. FFRF does not have the resources to complain about every church used as a polling site, but if the circumstances you encounter are extreme, we can do a backup complaint.

Studies show that a church polling location does impact election results. This should be concerning to all citizens. Here is a summary of one study: http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/news/research/pubpolicy_wheeler_pollinglocation.shtml

By Annie Laurie Gaylor and Staff Attorney Rebecca Kratz

Last updated December 18, 2009

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