Group objects to churches as polling places

Messages about marriage on church signs during the May 8 primary raised questions.

Posted Updated

Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — 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)."


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