Voting in churches raises church-state separation issue

On Election Day in South Saint Paul, 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.”

Minnesota was voting on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, and the Catholic Church had been the most vocal proponent of the ballot measure.

At a separate West St. Paul polling place, a voter noticed 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.

Photos of the signs were shared widely on Facebook and Twitter.

In Minnesota, campaign materials must be 100 feet or more away from a building that is serving as a polling place. In both instances, the state statute was violated.

The Archdiocese called the incidents an oversight, and the signs came down by midday on Election Day.

Incidents like these have caused advocates for separation of church and state to urge elections officials to end the practice of using churches as polling places, or at the very least, beef up enforcement of polling place rules when churches are used.

What happened in Minnesota is a familiar story to voters in North Carolina. That state voted in favor of a constitutional amendment in May that banned same-sex marriage and civil unions. Several churches that were serving as polling places posted signs in support of that amendment.

In Morehead City, N.C., a church reportedly put the words “Vote for Marriage” on its marquee the day of the primary election, and during the general election, it erected a sign that read, “Vote for life and marriage.”

In Raleigh, N.C., a church serving as a polling place put up the words “A true marriage is male and female and God” during the May vote on the constitutional amendment.

In these 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.

In a letter to the North Carolina State Board of Elections, the American Humanist Association asked the state to consider choosing only public buildings as polling places in light of the politicking that occurred on church property.

The group warned that the current system “permits county elections boards to choose as polling places partisan, politically-involved institutions such as churches.”

Opposition to marriage equality isn’t the only issue churches that served as polling places delved into this Election Day.

Catholic churches in Boulder, Colo., St. Louis and Cincinnati had displays that included numerous small white crosses and signs opposing abortion.

In Boulder, the local ACLU said the display could be construed as voter intimidation.

“The Church had the First Amendment right to maintain this provocative and, to some, intimidating anti-abortion display on their property,” said a letter to elections officials, obtained by the Daily Camera. “But the fundamental constitutional and statutory right to vote must prevail in this case on the property of a polling place selected by the County.”

In one Virginia church, voters noticed voter guides created by socially conservative groups that had been placed near polling booths. (The church’s pastor said he didn’t now how the guides got there and that they weren’t authorized by the church.)

Rob Boston of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State said that his group doesn’t think churches should serve as polling places unless absolutely necessary.

“Many people are uncomfortable discharging a civic duty in a house of worship that might be known for taking political stands,” he said.

He said his group understands that in some communities, public buildings are in short supply and in those cases, appropriate private buildings could be used.

When churches are used, Boston added, there should be sufficient oversight. He added that churches should take down political materials if they serve as a polling place.

“If pastors don’t want to do this, then their church should not be used as a polling place,” Boston said.

The American Independent is a non-profit newsroom that funds and publishes independent investigative journalism, and can be reached at editor@americanindependent.com.

 

 

 

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