Should churches, left or right, serve as polling places?

Should churches, left or right, serve as polling places? December 7, 2012

Anyone who knows anything about the at times dangerous dance between politics and religion in modern America knows that:

* Religious groups and their leaders are allowed to make public stands on political, moral and cultural issues, but are not supposed to endorse, by name, specific candidates.

* A small number of very conservative pastors have, in recent years, attempted to fight church-state laws on that front and have created quite a few headlines while doing so.

* Following long-standing traditions, many African-American church leaders continue to either openly endorse candidates — President Barack Obama in particular, in the past two elections — and continue to make very few headlines while doing so.

The news team at The American Independent recently produced a story on a related topic that forced members of this non-profit operation to walk into this minefield. GetReligion readers will be shocked, shocked, to know that they produced a story that contained lots of solid information on the issue of whether churches should serve as polling places, but managed to focus only on possible abuses on only one side of the religious-and-political spectrum.

Thus, readers are told:

On Election Day in South Saint Paul, residents showed up at St. John Vianney Catholic Church to vote and were greeted with a banner outside the polling place entrance that read, “Strengthen Marriage, Don’t Redefine It.”

Minnesota was voting on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, and the Catholic Church had been the most vocal proponent of the ballot measure. At a separate West St. Paul polling place, a voter noticed a prayer, written by Twin Cities Archbishop John Nienstedt, that urged Catholics to defend God’s plan for marriage — between one man and one woman.

Photos of the signs were shared widely on Facebook and Twitter.

In Minnesota, campaign materials must be 100 feet or more away from a building that is serving as a polling place. In both instances, the state statute was violated. The Archdiocese called the incidents an oversight, and the signs came down by midday on Election Day.

Incidents like these have caused advocates for separation of church and state to urge elections officials to end the practice of using churches as polling places, or at the very least, beef up enforcement of polling place rules when churches are used.

The article also contains valid information about polling-place tensions linked to a same-sex marriage vote in North Carolina. Churches in Colorado, Missouri and Ohio also left a few small pro-life materials in place, as well. In one Virginia church, conservative voting guides were not removed from church distribution points close to the polls.

Any church-state expert would say that this basic issue — should churches, on the left or right, be used as polling places — is a valid hook for news coverage. There are some horror stories out there.

But here, once again, is the key: There are horror stories on the political left and on the political right.

Why did this report, produced by a non-profit news source, only focus on complaints coming from the political and cultural left, targeting the religious and cultural right?

Just asking. Really strange, sadly, or maybe not.

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  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    “Really strange, sadly, or maybe not.” How about the “maybe not”? There is no reason why they should have overlooked what happened on the political left. You can’t tell me that these people couldn’t find some church that was clearly supporting Obama and had signs or people around who expressed that support in an obvious way on Election Day.

    But I was also looking for some serious discussion on the church/state issues that this raises. Notice I said “serious discussion.” I don’t think getting quotes only from a rep of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State can be considered a discussion, much less a serious one. When Rob Boston is the only guy quoted in the piece, then you know that it isn’t “rather strange” but is the continued working of a particular agenda.

  • When I was in seminary (at a fairly liberal Episcopal seminary in Chicago), the seminary was a designated polling place. It was truly bizarre what Illinois made us do to make it a polling place. We had to take down all the crosses, lock the chapel doors, duct tape a garbage bag over any stained glass windows with religious figures, and use masking tape to physically remove the word “seminary” from the sign outside the building. I personally always thought the seminary gave up too much to be designated as a voting place, particularly with Northwestern University right across the street with its myriad of buildings.

  • sari

    Has anyone here seen church signage designed to push voters to the political left? We assume that every point has a counterpoint, but is that really so?

    • Will

      I most certainly have.

      • sari


        • Will

          Judson Square. Madison Avenue Baptist Church.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    I vote at an Episcopal church.

    Everybody in line seemed to belong to the same religious group: the Church of Apple.

    That is to say that most everyone, myself included, had their nose buried in their iPhone the entire 40 minutes we were in line. Not sure anyone ever looked up to see if there was any political propaganda in the church. 🙂

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      Which is a huge commentary on the state of American civic life these days.

  • FW Ken

    I googled around and didn’t find any stories about voting in left-leaning churches. Apparently, there is no (or little) counterpoint to leftist complaints about voting in conservative churches. There is one interesting point that might be worth exploring, and I did find out inThe Blaze. I can’t find that article right now, but here’s the study, which suggests that the location does affect how people vote.

  • MJBubba

    For several years my polling place was a lefty Episcopal church, and as we queued up in an interior hallway there were two bulletin boards from which it was easy to tell which side they were on. It never occurred to me that it was a problem. They provided a convenient space in a convenient location with adequate access and parking, and all the campaign signs complied with the regs.
    I have never been to any of the black churches that serve as polling places in my area, but I know from the local black radio stations on Sunday mornings that their pastors do in fact endorse local Democratic politicians, sometimes lending their pulpits for the politicians to speak. I have never heard that they violate the rules in any other ways, but local conservatives have been grousing about the double standard for many years.

  • northcoast

    I can see all kinds of reasons why authorities would rather undergo dental surgery than take a church pastor to court in one of these cases, even if they didn’t agree with the politics of the offender. Of course pressure from a local newspaper could have an effect.

  • Mari

    Election day isn’t the only problem day but is the more usual problem day. As my formerly black Baptist-flavored churchy neighborhood got gentrified with white agnostics and atheists there was more complaining about civic, community police and community emergency meetings taking place in churches. Most civic and community government meetings take place in churches, bceause in a lot of places it is the closest and biggest place that can handle the numbers of people. The schools like to limit who can and cannot come onto their campuses, and there is competition with after school programs and clubs. The nearby library or rec center might be closed in the evenings due to budget cut backs, but the auditorium or cafeteria at Holy Roller Baptist Church is free.
    Election Day is a big story and the fact that these same churches may serve as community meeting space the rest of the year doesn’t seem to make it into the press.

  • Julia

    I’m 68 and have been voting in Illinois since I was 21. I’ve had 4 different polling places. One was a volunteer fire department and the other three were locations associated with a church. BUT neither church location was actually in a church. One was a Catholic school gymnasium; one was a Catholic school basement; the third a Catholic parish hall. I’ve never heard of voting in an actual church and am shocked that it would happen. Do states other than Illinois allow that?

  • FW Ken

    Perhaps off the subject, but its not like there are not problems with other voting places. We had a child predator serving as an election judge in, you guessed it, an elementary school. You can call it an aberration, but how many sex offenders pass through the elementary school where I vote?

    So weigh the relative merits: catchingchurch cooties or dragging child molesters through schools and recreation centers.