Polling Place Piety: Does Casting Your Ballot In Church ‘Altar’ How You Vote?

"If there are nonreligious alternatives, there's no reason for the government to use a church." --Gregory M. Lipper, AU senior litigation counsel

Should churches serve as polling places? I don’t think so, and I’m not alone. 

According to the Winston-Salem Journal, the Appignani Humanist Legal Center has asked the North Carolina State Board of Elections to discontinue the use of houses of worship as voting sites.

The Center’s complaint comes in the wake of a bitter election fight May 8 in North Carolina over a constitutional amendment barring marriage equality for same-sex couples. Conservative religious groups led the campaign to approve the measure, and that resulted in a fresh focus on the use of churches as polling places.

In one notorious example, voters in Wilmington’s Precinct W28 had to pass by a church marquee trumpeting the congregation’s stand on the amendment. The signboard at the Devon Park United Methodist Church read, "A true marriage [is] male and female and God."

The church’s public pronouncement wasn’t against the law, but is it fair to ask voters to cast ballots in a venue where the host facility is plainly taking sides in a controversial referendum? Did that sign – and other influences like it –affect voters’ decisions?

The Journal reported that some 500 of the state's nearly 2,800 voting locations are at churches.

There hasn’t been a lot of research on this issue, but some studies suggest that voting in a house of worship makes citizens more likely to oppose abortion rights, gay rights and other stands that might conflict with the teachings of some churches. Doesn’t that tip the scales of justice toward some candidates and some referenda outcomes?

Gregory M. Lipper, senior litigation counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told the Associated Press that complaints about the use of churches as polling places roll into our offices regularly from around the nation.

Lipper said citizens are right to be concerned.

"If there are nonreligious alternatives, there's no reason for the government to use a church," Lipper said. "If it chooses to use a church, it suggests that the government has a religious motive rather than a logistical one."

Unfortunately, it looks as though North Carolina officials are unwilling or unable to take the right course.

Don Wright, legal counsel for the state board of elections, said the agency has no authority to impose a statewide policy because voting locations are chosen by counties. He added that he regards the use of churches as "completely legal" anyway.

Wright may be correct as far as the law is concerned. There have been a couple of challenges to the practice, and the courts have held that it passes constitutional muster because voters can cast absentee ballots or vote through other means if they object to going to church.

Maybe so. But that doesn’t mean it’s sound public policy. State and local officials have the authority to choose secular locations for polling places, and they ought to do so. It’s the fair thing to do.