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Austin Cline

Weekly Poll: Should Voting Booths be in Churches?

By August 29, 2013

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Many states allow churches to house polling stations which is already enough of a problem, but complicating matters is the question of whether churches can or should be prohibited from displaying advertisements against for or against particular initiatives that are on the ballots. Having such displays is understandable given that the church is a private organization which has an opinion on ballot questions, but it is illegal for a polling station where all views must be treated equally. Churches may be important institutions in a community, but should they also be where people vote and where they can be proselytized to at the same time?

When people in America go out to vote, their voting usually takes place in some public building - schools or town halls, for example. In some areas, though, there is a tradition of using churches as polling places because in those communities the church is the most public institution around. Many Christians wouldn't be bothered by voting in a church; in fact, they would wonder why anyone would be bothered. Are such people offended by Christianity? Are they anti-Christian? It requires a massive amount of personal blindness and conviction that one's unjust privileges are really personal rights to think such things.

What Christians need to ask themselves is how they would feel about voting in a mosque and being confronted with "Allah hu-Akbar" signs along the way to the brand new voting machines. What if they were forced to vote in a gay-friendly synagogue filled with signs promoting equality for gays, or the local offices of the ACLU filled with posters denouncing attempts to undermine church/state separation? If that sounds like something that would make a some Christians uncomfortable, does that mean that Islam offends them or that they are anti-Muslim? Of course not. It does, however, mean that sectarian religious proselytization -- unavoidable in any house of worship -- and political propaganda is inappropriate in the place where people are voting.

The American Humanist Association has received numerous complaints from all across the country about polling stations in churches. There is even hard evidence for how the use of churches can inappropriately influence how a person votes. According to AHLC attorney James Hurley: "An Illinois member voted in a church that displayed a four-foot wooden crucifix right above the election judges. Another member in California was confronted with a large marble plaque dedicated to the 'unborn children' who are 'killed' by abortion and containing a quote from the Bible justifying the notion that the soul is alive in the womb. And a New York member voted in a room featuring large religious slogans on the wall behind the voting machines."

Why should Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, or atheists have to go to a Christian church and be forced to look at Christian symbols just so they can exercise their fundamental right to vote? Why should voters have to face faith-based political propaganda simply because local politicians have chosen to put voting booths in churches instead of someplace where such propaganda would be illegal? Why should Christian fundamentalists have to go to a Catholic Church to vote? It really doesn't make any sense to integrate private churches into the public process of civic voting. Churches, as institutions, can't be accorded any special status, role, or voice when it comes to voting for officers of a civil, secular government.

November 7, 2008 at 1:12 am
(1) Indigo says:

I’ve voted in churches – or, to be more accurate, church halls. I’ve also attended plays, poetry readings and charitable drives in church halls, and never considered it a problem. It’s hard to say why it doesn’t bother me when other church/state mixings do, but I tend to think that it’s because voting in a church is not any different from voting anywhere else. You don’t have to offer a prayer first, or contribute to the communion plate. I also think that most Christians I know wouldn’t object to casting their ballot in a mosque or a temple, but the Christians I know are fairly tolerant.

November 7, 2008 at 3:11 am
(2) Simon says:

What if Califorians were asked to vote in the last election at gay social clubs?

November 7, 2008 at 4:10 pm
(3) Puchiko says:

I’m mostly against votes taking place in churches, because of the non-neutral stuff put up.

I guess that if there’s really no other suitable place (by suitable I mean that it’s located in a place that’s convenient to get to even if you don’t have a car, and the place can reasonably serve the purpose of a voting room) I guess I’d allow it to happen in a church, but I’d insist they minimise the “decorations”. It should only be used as a last resort though.

November 7, 2008 at 4:40 pm
(4) Jayelle Wiggins-Lunacharsky says:

The situations you describe are awful! I’m okay with churches using their space–it’s a good and constructive thing they’re doing for the whole community. However, the space for voting and the entryway should be left as religiously and politically neutral as possible, even if that means temporarily moving a few things.

November 7, 2008 at 10:59 pm
(5) Larry says:

I have served as an election official for several years in a Baptist church. Yes, an Atheist defending the Constitution in a Baptist church.

Although it would be better to use secular facilities, there are not enough of them. Fire stations have limited parking as do schools which also pose a security problem.

I almost cracked up when our supervisor of elections remarked that she likes to use churches because “there’s nobody there.”

Fortunately we have the option of voting early in a secular venue or by mail.

November 8, 2008 at 6:07 pm
(6) Bob says:

In New Zealand voting takes place in public buildings mostly schools which are everywhere. I imagine if a church were used it would have to be a neutral building. Some churches are used for secular functions sometimes with the altar curtained off.

I wonder if you Americans don’t create unnecessary problems for yourselves. A church with a heavy religious atmosphere would not be used. In the unlikely case no appropriate building is available why not put up a large marquee?

November 13, 2008 at 10:29 am
(7) tracieh says:

Ironically, my main reason for thinking that voting booths should not be in churches has to do with a memory of a religious relative. She was a long-time Italian Catholic who converted to fundamentalist Christianity mid-way through her life. After doing that–she could never enter a Catholic church without feeling extremely uncomfortable.

As an atheist, I can enter any building I like without any feelings of disloyalty or “evil”–but I think it’s important for me to recognize how others, who have religious beliefs, might feel about entering a religious building. I think the act of voting should be done in such a way that as many people as possible feel as welcome as possible, and that impediments that are known to cause discomfort, should not be considered as part of the process.

How many Christians might feel uncomfortable entering a mosque or Buddhist temple to vote? Some might feel unable to even enter the building.

I recognize that many Christians might not have an issue with this–but I can’t deny many would. And in the same way, why should Moslems or Catholics be asked to enter the local Baptist church (a place where, in their minds, blasphemy occurs regularly) to vote?

Religion is a quagmire of divisiveness and ill will that breeds guilt and negativity in people. I’ve also seen another fundamentalist woman unable to stay in a Buddhist temple during a secular ceremony.

People should be comfortable voting. And some people just aren’t comfortable going into places of worship that do not represent their beliefs. The whole point of separation of church and state is to respect these sorts of beliefs. By having voting in a church, we violate the feelings of people of faith who are outside of that particular faith where the voting will occur.

While we can probably come up with ways to work around it–we have plenty of public venues that don’t stir up this sort of discomfort. I’ve voted in community centers, schools and shopping malls.

May 5, 2009 at 1:23 pm
(8) ds says:


May 5, 2009 at 1:24 pm
(9) Your MoM says:


May 5, 2009 at 1:25 pm
(10) Your_MoM says:


August 29, 2013 at 5:14 pm
(11) Cousin Ricky says:

Tracie, you’ve convinced me! While the argument has been over messages sent by the churches (which can be mitigated), I had not considered that some religious voters would have a problem entering a house of worship of a different religion.

August 30, 2013 at 7:51 pm
(12) Barry Johnstone says:

A tax-payer has an obligation to vote. By doing so, they are participating in the process of governing and using their RIGHT as a tax-payer to do so! If religion payed tax, they would have the right to vote – and the right to participate in governing a country – and until they do, any voting must be in a secular setting – anything but a church, mosque or a synagogue!

September 6, 2013 at 4:31 pm
(13) Marvin says:

I too would prefer that churches not be used, but as an election judge stuck from 5 AM until 8 PM, I prefer to be in a building that can be at least heated. I can deal with an out house if I have to, but at my age I find it difficult to dress for the kind of cold we often have in November.

Voting precincts in my part of the US are townships — thirty-six square mile divisions based on surveys done in the early nineteenth century. The one we live in has approximately three hundred registered voters, and my wife and I were assigned to another with fewer than a hundred for the last election. Many years ago there were schools in every township, but today there are two grade schools and one high school for two counties. Many of the townships don’t even have churches, but where they’re available, I’m afraid I’d be relieved to sit all day in one rather than someone’s garage or barn.

If such were the case, though, it seems entirely reasonable that election officials could tape some sort of veil over the material that could be objectionable to some voters. We tape up all sorts of things anyway.

Unfortunately, that wouldn’t solve the problem Tracie mentioned. I know it’s a real concern, though. It was very much a part of my upbringing to avoid, in particular, Catholic churches as places of “idol worship,” among other things. It seems childish now, but I suspect my mother would have refused to vote in a Catholic church.

September 8, 2013 at 11:42 am
(14) Austin Cline says:

I too would prefer that churches not be used, but as an election judge stuck from 5 AM until 8 PM, I prefer to be in a building that can be at least heated.

Since elections are vital for a democracy, it’s the obligation of the government to provide proper facilities to make elections possible. It’s inappropriate for the government to use improper facilities on the excuse that nothing else is available.

September 7, 2013 at 9:18 am
(15) Grandpa In The East says:

Since churches are tax supported institutions, I, as an atheist, think it is appropriate to use churches as polling stations even on Sunday, all day long.

What? You say churches are not tax supported?

I have a question for you! What is 2 plus 2?

Who makes up the shortfall for all the land on which churches pay no property taxes? You do. And so do I.


PS The answer is 4!

September 13, 2013 at 10:53 am
(16) Marvin says:

“Since elections are vital for a democracy, itís the obligation of the government to provide proper facilities to make elections possible. Itís inappropriate for the government to use improper facilities on the excuse that nothing else is available.”

You’ll get no argument from me, Austin.

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