With several reported incidents this election cycle of churches that served as polling places touting their opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion, separation of church and state advocates are reviving calls to eliminate churches as polling sites. In Minnesota, where the Catholic Church has been the most vocal proponent of a ballot measure to ban same-sex marriage, the American Independent noted the following incidents:
In South Saint Paul, Minn., on Election Day, 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.” […]
Ivan Kowalenko … told Minnesota Public Radio, “I was shocked, I didn’t think that would be allowed. I was hearing that you’re not allowed to wear any political slogan of your own, so it doesn’t seem entirely appropriate that a voting venue would be allowed to express an opinion.”
At a separate polling place at St. Joseph’s Church in West St. Paul, Stephanie Weiss was waiting in line to vote, and she noticed a sign posted to the wall. It was 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.
Similar incidents occurred in May when North Carolina voted on the ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions:
Open Door Baptist Church in Morehead City put the words “Vote for Marriage” on its marquee the day of the primary election, according to the Carteret County News-Times. Earlier this month, the church doubled down on its politicking with a sign that read, “Vote for life and marriage.”
In Raleigh, North Carolina, Devon Park United Methodist Church put up the words “A true marriage is male and female and God” during the May vote on the constitutional amendment. That church was serving as a polling place.
The church’s pastor, William H. Pearsall Sr., told the Wilmington Star-News that it was his idea and that his church council agreed to put the message up. “We agreed that we needed to stand up for Christian values,” Pearsall said. He also told the paper, “In our church, God’s word never changes and it’s the truth.”
In all three instances in North Carolina, the signs were outside of the buffer zone set by state statute and were, therefore, legal. However, the incidents prompted a call by some residents and advocacy groups to revamp the selection process for polling places.
Even where churches are not posting advocacy materials on Election Day, advocates worry that the polling place gives the impression of impropriety and threaten the neutrality of the site as a place for civic activity. Studies have shown that voting in a church “could activate norms of following church doctrine.” And the Humanist Legal Center has pointed out that the selection of a church building for voting could “amount to an endorsement of religion that marks non-Christian voters as outsiders” and perhaps even more disturbingly, actually skews the results of the voting toward religious views, which amounts to an unconstitutional advancing of religion.” The Center also warns that the selection of churches may burden the right to vote, where “voters are forced to vote in a hostile location that skews the results.”
Churches are no doubt useful public spaces, particularly in small communities that lack other options. But organizations like Americans United for Church and State say if elections officials are going to use churches, they should at the very least better police political messaging at the sites.