Nov 03, 2005

Texas election officials may not locate a polling place on church property and then allow clergy to control the political activities that take place there, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

A Dallas County man says a minister with the Northway Baptist Church prohibited the placement of signs on church property opposing Proposition 2, a referendum proposal that bars same-sex marriage in Texas. The minister also reportedly ordered the man to remove his car from the church parking lot because the vehicle displayed a sign opposing the referendum.

The fellowship hall of the Northway Baptist Church is a polling place for the Nov. 8 election, and early voting is under way now.

Said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, “Americans have the clear constitutional right to take a stand on political issues and to try to persuade voters to join them. It is wrong for clergy to interfere in that process.

“If churches don’t want free speech to take place on their property, they should not rent their facilities to the government for use as polling places,” Lynn said. “This incident demonstrates why polling places ought to be located at religiously neutral sites.”

In a Nov. 2 letter to Dallas County Elections Administrator Bruce Sherbert, Americans United warned that the Texas Election Code permits electioneering at polling places as long as it takes places outside a 100-foot radius.

Observed the AU letter, “Northway Baptist Church has prohibited the placement of signs on all of its property, not just the area inside the one-hundred-foot boundary. By designating Northway Baptist as a polling place, Dallas County elections officials have violated the Texas Election Code and may have violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“We therefore ask that you take immediate steps to ensure that the church allows electioneering, including the placement of campaign signs, on its premises, outside the one-hundred-foot boundary,” the letter concluded.

Americans United said election officials have a legal obligation to move the polling place to another location if the church refuses to allow electioneering activities there.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.