At Cross Purposes by Catherine Fahringer (June/July 1997)

San Antonio citizens voted for mayor on Saturday, the third of May. Since my precinct generally votes at St. Anthony de Padua Catholic Church, I voted by mail, which seniors are entitled to do.

For at least eight years I have been trying to bring some attention to the breach in the wall of church/state separation that occurs when churches are used as polling places. I even paid a personal visit, accompanied by two volunteers from the San Antonio Civil Liberties Union, to the head of our elections department. Nothing came of that, or of letters I continued to write over the years to everyone I thought might help stop this deplorable practice. My co-respondence with various officials and agencies might better be termed mono-spondence.

Deciding early this year that I might as well admit defeat, I wrote to the priest at St. Anthony’s, enclosing a copy of an article I had written for Freethought Today called “Voting with Jesus.” For good measure I added a number of those unanswered letters I had written over the years, plus some of the pictures I had taken of the religiously decorated voting place. In my letter I mentioned how hard I had worked to abolish the use of churches as polling places, and how fruitless my efforts had been. I asked him if, since I had failed and he had won, would he be considerate enough to remove all icons and religious graffiti from that area in the parish hall where the voting would take place. I know he received my letter because a neighbor (a self-proclaimed freethinker who attends St. Anthony’s Sunday mass!) called me and asked, ” Catherine, whatever have you done now?!” I thought she was talking about a neighborhood gate problem which I had also been fighting for years. (The rear of our property borders that of a large condominium whose gates have caused us no end of trouble in that one of them was across our property line.)

But she laughed and said that she wasn’t talking about gates, but was referring to a letter I had written ‘Father Bill.’ “Just what did you say to him?” she pressed. So I launched into the whole story about church/state violation which took some explaining in itself because so many people, whether believers or not, do not see anything wrong with voting in churches! Since my friend is very chummy with ‘Father Bill,’ I assumed he must be one of those freethinking Catholics who cannot get out of the fix he got himself into when he was young and gullible. I assumed he would honor my request. (Never assume anything. It is great advice and I wish I would take it.)

On election Saturday I was busy-busy-busy. I’d done my civic duty by mail, but my mind was nagged by the repetitive question: Was Father Bill decent enough to honor my request and get the religious junk out of the voting place?

I needed something from the store, so on the way there I decided to stop at the church to check the parish hall. What I saw took my breath away. There in the corner was a large cross, not three feet from the first voting booth! Some sort of material was festooned around it, and at the foot were objects of some religious significance. I was too stunned to take them all in. I turned to the left wall where hung a huge likeness of the pope, appearing to oversee the voting. Enough already! I dashed out to continue my trip to the store, a roll of film now being the most important item.

Back at home, I loaded my camera, strapped it around my waist, jumped in my car and headed down the hill. Having parked the car, I started snapping pictures of the entrance to the parish hall which had steps and no ramp. The polling places are supposed to be accessible to the handicapped. While I was snapping away, a woman, accompanied by two people, struggled up the steps with a cane.

They saw I was taking pictures and walked right in front of me. Talk about manna from heaven! I wasn’t there to take pictures of people, but what a golden opportunity to point out the lack of a ramp!

I entered the parish hall and started clicking away immediately. I had taken about eight pictures before a virago volunteer jumped up from the sign-in table and started yelling at me that I was breaking the law. I told her that the city was breaking Constitutional law according to the First Amendment and, further, there was no access for handicapped which was another violation. “There’s one at the end of the building!” she screamed. (I later checked and there was, but there was no arrow or sign pointing to it. The ramp was on the north side of the building; the marked voting entrance was on the west side.) By now, of course, the voters and other volunteers who had paid me no heed as I snapped away were frozen in their tracks, staring at the two of us. The woman was pointing her finger at me and continuing to yell that I was breaking the law by taking pictures of people without their permission, had interrupted the voting process, etc., etc., etc. I turned to leave, but she followed me out to the parking lot, haranguing me the whole time, demanding my name and address which I didn’t give her. She stood by my car and threatened, “I’m going to write down your license number and call the police!” I replied, “Be my guest,” and waited while she jotted down the number.

I got in my car, sped home, dashed to the bedroom and exchanged my camera with the ‘illegal’ pictures for a very cheap bad one with an unfinished roll of film from 1989, just in case of confiscation (the criminal brain at work, here!). Then I called the NBC newsroom. There was only a recording, but I left a message anyway. I dashed to the garage, grabbed two signs, threw them and myself in the car and barreled back down the hill.

I am very proud of my protest signs, one of which is a 6-foot cross (modeled after one of Bill Baird’s which I had much admired) reading: Free Women From The Cross Of Oppression; Keep Abortion Legal. The placard is white with red letters (professionally made!) reading, Ban The Pope’s Ban On Abortion.

This time I didn’t drive into the parking lot, but parked at the curb by a nice little tree which would offer some shade. I pulled my gear from the car, proudly struck a pose and waited for the police. To my disappointment, they never came in the hour-plus that I was there, but I did notice heads popping out of the parish hall door from time-to-time to look my way.

I’d left a message for my husband as to where I’d be when he came home, so he arrived on the scene about the time I decided to pack it in for the day. He loaded my signs for me and we drove the block home. I unloaded my signs in the garage and went out to check the mailbox. Fred and I were sitting on the couch, sorting and reading our bills and ads, when I happened to glance up and see two policemen coming up the front walk! Oh, thrillsville! I was going to be arrested! I leapt to the front door before the bell rang and greeted the callers with a cheerful and anticipatory, “Have you come to arrest me?” The larger of the two (who was enormous) said they had not (oh, darn!), but that they would like to come in and talk to me for a bit. Well, I guess that was better than nothing.

The enormous one started out by saying he’d heard I was down at the church with a huge cross and asked where it was. I confessed that indeed I had a cross and that it was now in the garage. He asked me if I knew I was breaking the law. “Well, I was standing on a public sidewalk,” I replied. He went on to say that I was breaking the law by going into the polling place and disturbing the voters. I explained that nobody had even noticed me until the virago attacked me, and that I took pictures every year because I was trying to get some attention focused on the problem of voting in churches. He chided, “But you didn’t vote.” I didn’t tell him I had voted by mail, but answered that I hadn’t done so because, although St. Anthony’s was my precinct’s polling place, I couldn’t vote because it was a church. (Mind, all of what I said was quite true!)

The lecture and my interjections continued for about ten minutes or so. I had to promise that I would never ever take pictures again, or even go to a polling place unless for the purpose of voting. I obligingly did so. By this time I have pictures of just about every religious objet d’ugly the church could possibly come up with, and I am wasting film so far as accomplishing my goal.

As a parting shot, the enormous one (the normal man-sized policeman didn’t say a word that I recall; he must have been getting on-the-job training) tried his skill at analogy. “How would you like it if you and your husband left town and a bunch of strange people came in and threw a big party in your house?” I was momentarily stunned by his comparison. “But . . . but that’s breaking and entering,” I countered. “There’s no similarity between that and what I did.” Undaunted, he again solemnly intoned. “But you broke the law (as if those party-givers hadn’t!). Promise that you won’t do it again.” I promised, hand raised (but no bible). We said friendly good-byes, and they were off to apprehend (or chastise) more criminals.

Well, there’s to be a mayoral run-off election in about a week. I’ll leave my camera at home (I am a woman of my word), but I don’t believe there is a dress code for voting. Now, just which of my message T-shirts and buttons shall I wear?

Catherine Fahringer is a Foundation officer and activist from Texas.

Freedom From Religion Foundation