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Proselytizing at the polls: Why churches make bad voting venues

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A photo of a rosary, voting stickers, and a cross

 

Every election season, FFRF receives numerous complaints from citizens across the country who are forced to vote in a house of worship.

With the 2024 election season already underway, we at FFRF are waiting for what feels like an inevitable uptick in church polling place complaints. For context, in many counties or municipalities, one-third to one-half of all polling locations are Christian churches. Nationwide, about one in five polling places are a church. In FFRF’s hometown of Madison, Wis., one-fourth of current polling places are churches. This is a problem.

Simply put, houses of worship make bad polling locations.

For one, it seems wrong on an intuitive level to force citizens to enter a house of worship in order to perform one of their greatest civic duties: voting. Each election, atheists, agnostics and members of minority faiths are coerced into entering a church in order to vote on Election Day. If you’re currently forced to vote at a church, we urge you to complain to your local election officials. If you believe you’ve experienced a state/church violation, you can report to FFRF to see if we can assist.

Voting in Christian churches is so common that many citizens don’t even stop to think about how problematic the practice is — at least not until they’re required to vote in a minority religion’s house of worship. In 2016, Palm Beach County removed a mosque as a polling location after receiving complaints from voters who felt uncomfortable voting there. Yet, no one batted an eye at the fact that Palm Beach County was using 90 Christian churches and Jewish synagogues as polling locations at that time. FFRF wrote a letter to the county pointing out the hypocrisy of deciding that a Muslim house of worship was unacceptable while allowing counterparts for other religions to continue serving as polling locations.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation considers this practice unconstitutional but in terms of the state of the law whether the use of churches as polling places violates the First Amendment is still technically unsettled. Only a few state and federal courts have ruled on the issue, and in those cases the courts determined that using a house of worship as a polling place can be permitted as long as there is a secular justification and voters have alternative ways to cast their ballots, such as absentee voting. Until state supreme courts or the Supreme Court of the United States hands down a ruling, the use of houses of worship as polling places is still an open question. Like many other recurrent state/church violations, church polling places serve as a reminder that court reform is an essential part of preserving and rebuilding the wall of separation between state and church.

Even though many places now offer more voting latitude, such as voting early at a central library or voting by mail, government bodies shouldn’t be selecting polling places that signal that some voters are insiders and others are outsiders — and which necessitate voting by mail to avoid a hostile polling place. Many citizens still take civic pride in voting in person at their neighborhood polling place, enjoy interacting with polling place volunteers and neighbors, and getting the “I voted” sticker on Election Day.

Beyond inherently violating the consciences of nonbelieving voters, houses of worship often abuse their status as polling places to further their own goals. The various complaints FFRF receives every election season are proof that churches are not suitable polling locations. FFRF has received complaints of churches using Election Day as a chance to illegally proselytize voters and poll workers, advertise Sunday services, display religious imagery, hand out religious literature, do fundraisers through sale of baked goods or other items and attempt to persuade voters on key issues.

For example, in 2023 we received a complaint that a church in Dearborn County, Ind., displayed political signs promoting specific candidates while serving as a polling place. Further, the church allowed candidates to loiter on the property and solicit voters as they were entering the church to vote.

Last year, FFRF also took action after receiving a report that a church polling place in Lake County, Ohio, has a habit of using elections as an opportunity to promote religious messages to voters. The church apparently sets up tables with advertisements encouraging voters to attend services at the church. Additionally, the area used for voting is filled with religious imagery and literature that the church refuses to remove during elections, and the church displays Republican “voting guides.” Even more egregious, our complainant reported that the church’s pastor would linger around the polling location and proselytize voters and poll workers.

FFRF will continue to urge election officials to ditch houses of worship in favor of secular voting locations that will not violate any citizen’s First Amendment rights. Even if election officials insist on using a church as a polling place, the church cannot be allowed to promote candidates to voters, display religious imagery or messages in the voting area, proselytize or advertise to voters, attempt to sway how voters cast their ballots or violate any other federal or state election law safeguards.

Apart from the clear constitutional problems with forcing citizens to enter a house of worship to vote, there is also a growing body of social science research showing that polling locations have an impact on how people vote. A 2008 study by Stanford Graduate School of Business researchers found that voting in a church could affect how citizens vote on propositions, such as influencing citizens to vote against stem cell research initiatives. A 2010 study by Professor Abraham M. Rutchick demonstrated that people voting in churches were more likely to vote for a conservative candidate and support a ban on same-sex marriage. Finally, a study updated in 2020 by Professor Jordan P. LaBouff also concludes that voting in churches sways people to vote more conservatively: “Even if not religiously inclined, respondents [study participants] at churches supported more conservative approaches to issues such as immigration, taxes, drug policies, warfare and abortion.”

As the 2024 election season continues, FFRF stands ready to push back against church polling places that defy the law and abuse their access to voters. With primaries, caucuses and the presidential election all taking place amid the rise of Christian nationalism, former President Trump’s ongoing legal battles and increasing scrutiny of the U.S. Supreme Court, it won’t be surprising if we see emboldened church polling places bending and breaking the rules in attempts to sway voters and gain new members.

It’s shameful and, frankly, absurd that in the year 2024 Americans are still being coerced to enter houses of worship in order to perform their most basic and essential civic duty. FFRF will continue to fight for secular polling places, and we encourage all secular Americans to contact their election authorities and let them know that they do not want to be forced to vote in a church.

Voting should not come at the cost of any citizen’s First Amendment rights.

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One Response

  1. Very interesting article. I live in (famously liberal) Berkeley, California, and for several elections in the 80s and 90s worked as a poll worker. Only once was the polling place I worked at *not* in a church or other religious venue. For four different elections, I worked as an election roving supervisor–basically going around to several polling places and trouble-shooting. This was in the days before cell phones were much of a thing, so I had to find pay phones to report back to the county elections office and summon assistance as needed. Every single one of these religious venues, with the exception of the Berkeley UU Fellowship church, abused the privilege of being a polling place. They refused to let us open on time for set-up, insisted we close early (because morning or evening religious services were going on and couldn’t be disturbed), hassled voters before, during, and after voting, refused to allow poll workers to organize lines properly, and much more. I specifically remember the rabbi of a Jewish synagogue who excoriated me for being “anti-semitic” when I reported to the elections office that voters at that place had had to vote outside, in the rain, because he refused anyone except the congregation entry until 10 a.m.–despite the contract they’d signed with the county. (He got set on his back heels when I told him I have long-ago Jewish ancestry, from al-Andalus. He didn’t know what that was.) As far as I know, the county elections office never did anything, or pulled any contracts with these multiple religious entities, no matter how many complaints they got. They had the same problem with “handicapped-accessible” polling places which weren’t, but they never pulled any contracts from those venues either, despite multiple complaints. I’m so glad that most people in Calif were able to vote by mail in 2020, and still do to this day. And, yes, it’s “better” here in Berkeley than elsewhere–a low bar, obviously.

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