Churches fill gap on election day

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LANSING — Some voters who would rather not darken the door of a church will be out of luck Nov. 8 in many communities.

Places with a lot of people in a small area often can’t put all their voters in just one building, said Ed Golembiewski, chief deputy clerk and director of elections in Washtenaw County.

So some city, township and county clerk offices find churches with enough space to accommodate voters.

“I don’t know what we’d do without churches,” said Joan Runyan, elections coordinator in Livingston County. She noted that polling locations need to be big enough, have adequate parking, and be handicap-accessible.

But what solves logistical challenges for election clerks isn’t acceptable to all voters.

The Americans Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has received complaints about it over the years, Darrell Dawsey, communications director for the union, wrote in an email. He’s not sure of the exact number.

Other groups receive similar complaints.

Forcing people of no or another religion to go into a house of worship to cast their ballot is wrong, said Kendal Taylor, temporary president of the Freethought Association of Northern Michigan, a discussion group for atheists and agnostics in the Petoskey area.

“We all know what the Constitution says,” said Taylor, who used to be a Baptist minister but now identifies as an atheist. “And it definitely calls for the separation of church and state.”

Under state law, polling locations are supposed to be in publicly owned facilities, said Gisgie Gendreau, communications director at the Secretary of State’s office. If there isn’t one available, “then a polling place can be in a building owned by a nonprofit organization.”

The Secretary of State does not track the number of churches used as polling locations statewide, but Capital News Service identified several counties where churches will be used as polling locations on Nov. 8, including Livingston, Washtenaw, Eaton and Chippewa counties.

Many non-Christians are uncomfortable and feel intimidated voting in churches, said Rebecca Markert, senior staff attorney at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wisconsin-based organization that advocates the separation of church and state.

More people complain about schools being used as polling locations than those who complain about churches, said Robin Troyer, city clerk for Sault Ste. Marie. Parents consider it a security risk.

Sault Ste. Marie will use one church as a polling location on Nov. 8, the First United Presbyterian Church, Troyer said. The city started using it after 9/11 when the armory was closed to the public.

Serving as a community center is part of the purpose of the church, said the Rev. Mark Gabbard, the pastor of the church.

The church earns $400 for hosting voters, he said.

Gabbard understands the complaint about using churches as polling locations, he said, but “the Constitution doesn’t guarantee the community square is going to be free from religion.”

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a Washington, DC-based group that tracks church and state issues, doesn’t like the practice of using churches as polling places, said Ian Smith, a staff attorney at the organization. The organization does recognize that there are certain situations where it makes sense to have public meetings in churches.

When people  complain about churches being used as polling location, Smith said the organization tells them voting in churches is legal under the following circumstances: Voters have an alternative to voting in the house of worship. The room where the voting takes place also shouldn’t have substantial religious elements. Whoever picked the church as a polling location can’t have discriminated in the process of choosing the location. Finally, neither voters nor poll workers have to follow any religious conditions such as covering their hair.

But Markert said absentee and vote-by-mail options aren’t good enough. Those options don’t capture all the scenarios a voter might find themselves in.

And some people enjoy voting at their polling location on election day, Markert said.

“It’s a big, significant fun thing to do, to vote with your fellow citizens,” she said.

The foundation gets a fair number of church-state complaints from people in Michigan, Markert said.

Smith said Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has noticed something similar, though the organization doesn’t keep specific numbers on states.

It doesn’t necessarily mean Michigan has more church-state problems than other states, he said.

Michigan is more of a hotbed of people who care about the issue, Smith said, and that can skew the numbers up.

Not many lawsuits have been filed over the use of churches as polling locations, Smith said, because the right case hasn’t come along.

“Maybe it will,” he said.

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