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Polling Stations Shouldn't Be Located in Churches or Houses or Worship

Why Must Atheists Use Churches or Houses of Worship to Vote in Elections?


Voters at Cedar Hill Lutheran Church Cedar Hill, Missouri, 2004

Voters at Cedar Hill Lutheran Church Cedar Hill, Missouri, 2004

Elsa / Getty Images

Many communities in America put polling stations in churches instead of fire halls, town halls, libraries, schools, or other neutral sites. Atheists as well as many theists rightfully object to being forced to use sectarian, religious institutions for voting in secular, civil elections. Such institutional mixing of religion and government violates the church-state separation. It not only conditions civil rights on entering a religious institution, but makes things difficult for churches too.


What's Wrong with Church Polling Stations?

Some Christians don't understand why using their religious institutions for voting in secular, civil elections would be a problem for atheists, non-Christians, and even some other Christians. If their church is the center of their social and community life, why shouldn't it be for others as well? First, it's wrong to force people to enter a house of worship which is not their own in order to exercise their civil right to vote.

Some people might have religious objections to it and some may simply be made uncomfortable, but regardless the state is conditioning a person's ability to exercise the right to vote on their ability to spend time in someone else's house or worship as well as being subjected to someone else's religious imagery, messages, and propaganda. Why a person doesn't like this doesn't matter; the state has no authority to impose it on citizens.

Second, church polling stations places those churches in a difficult position because they cannot deny others the right to put up signs on behalf of candidates or issues which the church opposes. They must, for example, allow signs supporting abortion or gay marriage even if the church opposes abortion or gay marriage. Why should churches be forced to do this?

Third, research has found that where a person votes can influence their vote — and thus voting in a church may cause a person to vote in ways favorable to that church, the church's position, or Christianity generally. It's bad enough that forcing people to vote in churches privileges Christianity implicitly, but this research indicates that doing so privileges Christianity explicitly as well through the law.

Finally, politicians can place polling stations in churches or other houses of worship where religious leaders can post signs and messages which political leaders are barred from doing. I wonder how many would discover a new appreciation for church-state separation if the polling stations were located in mosques or atheist centers?

There was a time when most people in a community were Christian and a mainstream Protestant church was treated as little different from a public meeting hall — it was neutral ground open to everyone. It's been a long time since that was generally the case, however, even if it is still true in some communities around the nation. As America becomes more religiously pluralistic, such expressions of favoritism towards one religion become increasingly inappropriate and unacceptable.


How Atheist Activists Can Oppose Voting in Local Churches

Research the Situation: Before you go very far, you need to understand the overall political and historical landscape. How long has this church been a site for elections? Does the entire county use churches, or are there just a few sites? Who is responsible for choosing the locations of polling stations? Who was responsible for choosing this church in particular?

Investigate the Church: How can you effectively argue against the placement of polling stations in a church if you know nothing about the church itself? Spend time learning what the church's theology is, what their relationship with a larger denomination is, and what the church community is like. Visit the church and sit through a few services, especially in the weeks leading up to an election. Read what's on their web site and any literature they have sitting around. Research any references to them in the local media. Most importantly, find out what sorts of political activity or positions they have.

Document the Church's Political Activity: It's illegal for a church to hold tax-exempt status and work for or against any political candidates, but it's not illegal for them take positions on general political issues. You definitely want to learn if a church is involved in the former, but the latter is important as well. If a church is being used as a polling station for civil elections, you should document whether they have signs advocating any political positions and whether the congregation regularly receives political messages from the pulpit. Document all of this.

Complain: Once you have all the facts, start talking to people about changing the situation. You should know who is responsible for picking the sites of polling stations and that's the first person or group to approach. You need to have on hand documentation about any political activity of the church, especially political messages which voters are exposed to. You should be prepared with arguments about why it's inappropriate for the government to contract with religious institutions in such a manner. Finally, have some alternative sites handy — even if people agree with you, they won't make changes without some options to consider.

Publicize the Issue: If the responsible government officials refuse to consider your requests, you need to attract publicity to the issue. Letters to the editor are an easy place to start and you should find a reporter willing to give your arguments some sympathetic attention. Although local publicity is most important for making changes, there may be some value in wider publicity — like blogging on the issue, for example.

Make a Legal Challenge: The American Humanist Association's Appignani Humanist Legal Center, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Atheists, and the ACLU are all organizations you can contact to discuss making a legal challenge if it comes to that. The more documentation you have about what's going on and what you've done, the easier it will be for others to help you.

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