By Rebecca Markert
Senior Staff Attorney
Freedom From Religion Foundation
Earlier this year, Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher removed The Islamic Center of Boca Raton as a polling location in Palm Beach County. The county chose to use a city library instead of the mosque it had been using for over a decade. Ms. Bucher cited complaints from voters for the change. “Some felt uncomfortable voting at the Islamic Center,” she told the Palm Beach Post Editorial Board. According to records received by the Sun Sentinel, “Most voters wrote to Bucher that they felt uneasy casting their ballot at a mosque — although they didn’t cite specific objections.”
FFRF condemns the alleged fear-mongering and Islamophobia that plagued this case, but we agree with the result: Palm Beach County should not have been using a mosque as a polling site. FFRF sent a letter to Bucher explaining that the county is really missing the point. The problem is forcing citizens to vote in any house of worship. Palm Beach County currently considers it acceptable to use 90 Christian churches and Jewish synagogues for polling places. Its decision to bar the mosque reveals governmental preference for dominant religions over other religions. The situation in Boca Raton illustrates exactly why the practice should stop.
Government bodies charged with selecting polling places should not use any house of worship as a voting site. But the practice seems to be growing more common. More often than not, Christian churches are selected as polling sites. In many counties or municipalities, one-third to one-half of all polling locations are churches. In Rockford, Ill., churches constitute 80 percent of the city’s polling locations. In Eau Claire, Wis., for example, 53 of 66 wards use houses of worship. Fayetteville, Ark., churches comprise 16 of their 17 polling places!
Only three courts in the entire country have spoken on this issue and those three, unfortunately, 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 been asked to rule on the practice or found it permissible, it’s not well-settled law.
Palm Beach County barely scratched the surface as to why this practice is so objectionable. There are a whole host of problems with houses of worship being used as polling sites.
First, many of these sites are used for religious worship. Religious imagery is pervasive in a lot of these venues and oftentimes is in direct view of voters. FFRF has received complaints of voting booths directly underneath paintings of Jesus, large Christian crosses and nearby bibles and posters with biblical verses on them. A church in Eau Claire, Wis., put a voter registration table at the foot of an 8-foot-tall Christian cross. (Wisconsin has same-day voter registration.) 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 and more religiously diverse and more secular, Christian images and iconography are increasingly 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, though there is no evidence that this applies to the Islamic Center, 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. Bags contained religious literature; 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. The invitation included a bible verse: “For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living foundations of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes. Revelations 7:17.”
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.
The most egregious abuses, however, come when churches used as polling places also take the opportunity to speak out on ballot initiatives or referenda at issue in the election, or improperly endorse or oppose a candidate. This has come up frequently in the recent past when same-sex marriage bans have been considered in states across the United States. In 2012, a church in Antioch, Ill., posted an advertisement from the Rev. Billy Graham near polling locations. This ad quoted Graham as saying: “I strongly urge you to vote for candidates who support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a women, protect the sanctity of life, and defend our religious freedoms…” Voters had to walk past this ad to get to the polls.
Another church used as a polling location in Hendersonville, N.C., posted a sign on its grounds that read: “Vote Yes Marriage: Man and Woman.” A second church in that city posted a sign that read: “May 8 Vote for Marriage Amendment.”
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. A study in 2010, “Deus Ex Machina: The Influence of Polling Place on Voting Behavior,” by Professor Abraham Rutchick found that 83 percent of those voting in churches supported a measure defining marriage as between one man and one woman, while 81.5 percent of voters in secular locations supported the same measure.
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), such as libraries, public schools (it’s educational for students to witness Election Day), fire stations and malls. If public buildings are not being used, insist they be given priority over church polling places.
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 that 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 and display. 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, and your personal complaints are unsuccessful, we are pleased to examine your situation further.
It is reprehensible that many Americans of varying faiths or no faith are required to enter a house of worship — whether a mosque, a church or a synagogue — in order to fulfill the most basic civic duty. Local authorities need to make certain that voting is an absolutely free and fair exercise for all citizens.
FFRF is a national nonprofit dedicated to keeping state and church separate and educating about nontheism. We depend on member support, please join today.