The problem of voting in churches: By Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert

We’re only weeks away from the November election and this means many of us are finalizing our voter registrations and pinning down where we’re supposed to go to vote. You may be surprised to find that your polling location is in a church. Every election year, FFRF receives questions about the legality of houses of worship being used as polling places.

Only three courts in the entire country have spoken on this issue, and those three have found it to be a permissible practice so long as there are reasonable alternatives available for those who object to voting in a church, such as early voting or absentee voting. However, because only a minority of courts have deemed the practice permissible, it’s not well-settled law.

In many places, one-third to one-half of all polling locations are churches. In Rockford, Ill., churches constitute an incredible 80% of the city’s polling locations. In Eau Claire, Wis., 53 of 66 wards use houses of worship. In Fayetteville, Ark., churches are used for 16 of the 17 polling places!

Objectionable practice

FFRF takes the position that this practice is objectionable on many grounds.
There are a whole host of problems with churches being used as polling sites. First, many of these sites are utilized for Christian worship. Religious imagery is pervasive in a lot of these venues and oftentimes are in direct view of voters. FFRF receives complaints of voting booths being underneath paintings of Jesus, large Christian crosses and nearby bibles and posters with biblical verses on them. A church in Eau Claire put the voter registration table at the foot of an 8-foot tall Christian cross. Wisconsin has same-day registration, allowing voters to register on Election Day. Our complainant described his experience as “disconcerting, as if that was the focus of the event, instead of the primary election.” As our country becomes more religiously diverse, Christian images and iconography are seen by many as symbols of political intimidation.

At a minimum, if churches are going to be used as polling locations, religious imagery should be removed or covered in voting areas.

Furthermore, there are numerous cases across the country of churches exploiting their position as polling sites to promote their churches or causes. We’ve received reports of churches handing out literature about their services and posting sign-ups for their bible studies.

In the 2008 election, Shawnee Tabernacle Christian Church in Tobyhanna, Pa., used its status as a polling place to hand out “goodie bags” for voters. These bags were distributed to voters as they were entering or exiting the polling place. Bags contains religious literature included a “Welcome” pamphlet that listed worship services and prayer meeting times, a magazine entitled “PoconoParent,” which described a charter school opened and run by the pastor; and an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner sponsored by the church. Following a letter of complaint by FFRF, the Monroe County director of elections indicated they would not use the Shawnee Tabernacle as a polling location in the future.

Just this year, FFRF sent a complaint to Lehigh County, Pa., over its use of churches as polling places. Voters reported that, along with religious imagery, there were tables with displays of church activities. In a partial victory, the county agreed to place portable walls and dividers to cover up some of the religious images voters encountered in the polling area.

No proselytizing

The takeaway from these stories is this: churches should not be able to exploit their positions as a polling place in order to advertise themselves and distribute proselytizing materials.

The most egregious abuses, however, come when churches used as polling places also take the opportunity to speak out on ballot initiatives at issue in the election, or take the time to endorse or oppose a candidate. This came up frequently in the past as same-sex marriage bans were considered in states across the U.S.

Using houses of worship as polling places is particularly problematic knowing the psychological consequences of voting in a church. Where you vote can affect how you vote. In a 2008 study, “Contextual Priming: Where people vote affects how they vote,” professors Jonah Berger, Marc Meredith and S. Christian Wheeler found that those voting in a school were more likely to support a measure that increased sales tax to fund education. A similar study in 2010, “Deus ex machine: The influence of polling place on voting behavior,” by Abraham Rutchick, found that 83% of those voting in churches supported a measure defining marriage as between one man and one woman, while 81.5% of voters in secular locations supported the same measure.

Take action!

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 access to persons with disabilities): libraries, public schools (it’s educational for students to witness Election Day), fire stations, malls, etc.

If you are forced to vote in a church, take notes or photographs (if allowed by law), 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 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.

Rebecca S. Markert is FFRF senior staff and managing attorney.

Freedom From Religion Foundation