@NCCapitol

@NCCapitol

Group objects to churches as polling places

Posted June 1, 2012

— North Carolina's State Board of Elections has been asked to ban local boards from using churches a polling places.

"No voter should feel that the state, by choosing a private group to serve as a public polling place, has affiliated itself with a group that discriminates against him or her," wrote William Burgess, a lawyer with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, a group that advocates on behalf of atheists and other religious minorities. "Churches by, their very nature, exclude those who do not share their beliefs. As the recent past has shown, they also often express hateful bigotry toward certain groups grounded in their religious ideology." 

The Washington, D.C.-based center cited incidents during the May 8 primary when churches displayed messages on their marquees backing the constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

"Churches are an unconstitutionally hostile environment for nonreligious voters," Burgess wrote.

Gary Barlett, director of the State Board of Elections, disagrees. Often, he said, a church is the only building in a community that is both large enough to accommodate a polling place and is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"It's a local choice. The local boards of elections are the one's that make the determination," Bartlett said.

Some local boards avoid public schools to avoid interrupting classes, for example.

As for churches, he said, the issue surrounding this year's constitutional referendum are unique, Bartlett said. And unless the signs in question were "express advocacy" -- using the words "vote for" or "vote against" for example -- even churches that are polling places have freedom of speech rights. 

"This is the first time this issue has come up, and unless there is something similar, we're not going to see it again for a long, long while," he said. As for banning churches as polling places, Bartlett said that would be unlikely.

"Not unless people want to think long and hard about having a polling place in someone's home," he said. 

Update: The State Board of Elections last surveyed county board of elections as to what non-public buildings were used as polling places in 2003. Although the data is old, board attorney Don Wright said the numbers probably haven't changed much. He said: 

"In 2003, 530 churches were used as voting locations, this was 19% of the total number of voting locations. 315 non-public buildings that were not churches were used as voting locations in 2003, this is 12% of the total voting locations. Thus 31% of the precinct voting locations were in non-public buildings.

"Counties in 2003 that had a high number of churches use as polling locations were Mecklenburg (79), Guilford (83), Wake(57), Catawba (21), Forsyth(18), Durham (15), Pitt (15) and Orange(13)."

8 Comments

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  • starvingdog Jun 4, 2012

    I never liked having to vote in a church, either. However, there are precincts in rural and small town NC where a local church is the ONLY building with a large enough room to set up booths. No school in the precinct may well mean no government owned building of any sort exists within the borders of that precinct. Even if there is a school, with election day usually on a Tuesday you end up disrupting lunch or other school activity. Hold your nose and vote, or go to the early sites the week before.

  • lovelarvae Jun 4, 2012

    "Group objects to churches as polling places"

    I've always found that a questionable practice as well.

  • dwntwnboy Jun 4, 2012

    "all churches I have attended over the past 50+ years welcome people with open arms, regardless of their personal beliefs, sins or transgressions"- have you noticed recently- if you are gay- would YOU want to walk into some of these churches? I know I wouldn't, no matter what the reason is and voters shouldn't have to fear a polling place based on what that location represents- such as the church that wants to round up the gays and put them in concentration type camps- yeah, gays would feel GREAT having to go to THAT churh to vote. There is NO reason why we should have to use churches for ANYTHING in the public realm. They don't contribute to the public good by paying taxes and helping support society- so why do they get to hold the elections that shape our country?

  • dwntwnboy Jun 4, 2012

    We have enough "public" buildings we can use. The church crys about how the government is after them, yet we VOTE in the church? I agree that churches should be for church business and public buildings should be for public business. Keep government out of churches by keeping elections out of them.

  • LuvLivingInCary Jun 4, 2012

    i'll rent an office room and all the people that are scared of being touched by christ can pay for the access to a office place so they can vote in peace. sometimes people are so scardy catty.

  • Wheelman Jun 1, 2012

    Drag Burgess a stump out to stand on for his 15 minutes and then move on. If you don't like where you are supposed to vote, then ask to have it changed, vote an absentee ballot or vote early at election headquarters. This is a non-issue.

  • tjdebord Jun 1, 2012

    I just wanted to add one more thing. It's my belief that religion/denomination does not get one into heaven, but rather your personal relationship with God. There have been more wars fought in the name of religion than anything else I can think of. I realize atheists and agnostics don't believe as I do. But it's not my place to condemn them. Just as I don't think William Burgess can justly condemn all churches with a general statement.

  • tjdebord Jun 1, 2012

    "Churches by, their very nature, exclude those who do not share their beliefs. As the recent past has shown, they also often express hateful bigotry toward certain groups grounded in their religious ideology."

    This is a blatantly false generalization. There are some church groups that exclude "non-believers". However, all churches I have attended over the past 50+ years welcome people with open arms, regardless of their personal beliefs, sins or transgressions. We have all fallen short, but God is in the forgiving business.