Voting in North Carolina churches should cease, says American Humanist Association

Stating that “churches are an unconstitutionally hostile environment for nonreligious voters,” the North Carolina State Board of Elections has been asked by the American Humanist Association (AHA) to cease allowing the use of churches as polling places. 

The AHA’s legal department, the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, sent a letter on May 31, 2012, to State Board of Elections Executive Director Gary O. Bartlett saying that state and federal law requires that “appropriate polling places must be neutral civic locations, welcoming to all voters,” and “the use of churches as polling places is, in addition to being a violation of state law, unconstitutional.”

When North Carolinians went to the polls on May 8 to vote on Amendment One, the amendment to the state’s Constitution banning equal marriage rights, news reports highlighted how signs outside of churches being used as polling places displayed messages supporting the amendment. This practice is just one example of a broader situation in the state and across the country in which voters encounter religious messages and influences in what should be neutral polling places.

“Citizens are forced to enter a religious structure and encounter religious messages simply to exercise their fundamental right to vote,” wrote Appignani Legal Center Director William J. Burgess in his letter. “This violates the Establishment Clause [of the U.S. Constitution], which requires the separation of church and state.”

In further support of the request to “take formal action to change the manner in which private polling places are selected and regulated,” Burgess cites scientific studies that show that “subtle environmental cues in a polling place can significantly, but unconsciously, affect citizens’ real-world votes” mainly due to what’s known as the “priming effect” which “nudges voters in a predictable direction [leading] to a systematic, non-random bias in individual’s decision-making.”

As a remedy, the election board is asked to use its authority to issue regulations barring the use of churches as polling places in favor of secular venues such as schools, libraries, fire stations, municipal government offices, courts and recreation centers.

A copy of the letter can be found online here:

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