Officials Hear Complaints, Questions Over Churches As Voting Locations

FAYETTEVILLE -- Thousands of votes cast in the civil rights ordinance election Tuesday were cast in churches, one of which housed headquarters for one side, prompting concerns from voters throughout the day, county officials said.

The ordinance aimed to protect gay, bisexual and transgender people from being fired or evicted for their identities and was repealed in Tuesday's election after a strong religious backlash in town. All but one of the 17 polling places were at churches, including some whose denomination had taken a public stance on the ordinance.

At A Glance

Fayetteville Polling Places

All but one of 17 polling places Tuesday were churches. They’re listed here by which voting precincts use them.

• 1, 10, 15, 16: Christ’s Church, 525 W. 15th St.

• 2, 3, 26, 42: Sang Avenue Baptist Church, 1425 N. Sang Ave.

• 4, 5, 36: Central United Methodist Church, 6 W. Dickson St.

• 6, 30, 35, 39, 45: Trinity Fellowship, 1100 E. Rolling Hills Drive

• 7, 29: First United Presbyterian Church, 695 E. Calvin St.

• 8, 25: Yvonne Richardson Community Center, 240 E. Rock St.

• 9, 24: Genesis (Wiggins Methodist) Church, 205 W. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

• 11, 47: Baldwin Church of Christ, 4377 E. Huntsville Road

• 12: Buckner Baptist Church, 2748 E. Wyman Road

• 13, 34: Trinity United Methodist Church, 1021 W. Sycamore St.

• 14, 22, 37, 38, 41: Christian Life Cathedral, 1285 E. Millsap Road

• 17, 18: Sequoyah United Methodist Church, 1910 N. Old Wire Road

• 19, 44: St. John Lutheran Church, 2730 E. Township St.

• 20, 32, 43, 46, 48: Covenant Church, 4511 W. Wedington Drive

• 21: First Assembly of God, 550 E. 15th St.

• 23, 27, 31, 33, 40: Mount Comfort Church of Christ, 3249 W. Mount Comfort Road

• 28: The Awakening, 5763 E. Mission Blvd.

Source: Staff Report

Covenant Presbyterian Church on West Wedington Drive was a polling site and gave space to Repeal 119, the opponents of the ordinance, two members of the group said.

Voters called about the subject "all day long," said Jennifer Price, Washington County election coordinator. Election commissioners Max Deitchler and Pete Loris, both Democrats, said they also heard complaints.

Most often a voter wondered if it was legal for churches to have pro-repeal signs on their property during voting, Price said. All signs must be 100 feet or more from the entrance of a polling place under state law. The property owner decides if signs can stand outside that boundary.

"They felt like it was a conflict of interest if the churches had put the signs up," Price said. "Every once in a while we get a complaint that a voter doesn't feel right that we're voting in churches."

Repeal 119 for several months repeatedly pointed to religious liberty concerns and objections to different sexual orientations as among the reasons to get rid of the ordinance. Pastors from Texas and elsewhere came to Fayetteville urging repeal, joining a chorus from local, mostly Baptist clergy.

"We believe this ordinance attacks the very foundation of our religious liberties," Ronnie Floyd, pastor of Springdale's Cross Church and president of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote in an editorial on the Biblical Recorder website earlier this month against the ordinance. "Yes, we do believe Fayetteville, Ark., is America's current religious liberty battleground."

Three Baptist churches were polling places: The Awakening of Northwest Arkansas, Sang Avenue Baptist Church and Buckner Baptist Church.

"Many churches really had gone out of their way to work against the ordinance itself," said Tyler Clark, president of the Washington County Democrats. He added some voters said it was awkward and frustrating. "You wouldn't go vote for Barack Obama in the White House."

Covenant Church served as a "central location" for Repeal 119's campaign efforts, said Wendy Campbell, the group's secretary. She didn't know beforehand it was a polling place, she said.

"The church itself wasn't involved; they just had an extra space and they gave it to us," Campbell said. "It is strange to attack churches when they're actually part of the community and they serve the community in a number of ways."

On the other hand, several churches took a stand in support of the ordinance, including St. Paul's Episcopal Church near downtown, which wasn't a polling place. Other churches wanted to appear neutral, Price said.

"I got a call from one of my churches; a sign had been put on his property for repeal, but his church didn't put it there. He didn't want his church to be appearing to support it one way or the other," she said.

Churches are barred under their tax-exempt status from endorsing or opposing candidates, but they can say anything they want about issues in general, said Travis Story, a Fayetteville lawyer and Repeal 119's counsel. The group's space was on the other side of the building from the poll, he added. Price said poll workers enforced the 100-foot limit and made sure no posters or literature could be seen from the poll.

Covenant's pastor was unavailable to comment Thursday and Friday because of a health care procedure, the church's receptionist said.

"It would be the same thing as using this to say any other type of issue that had some type of religious connotation meant there was some type of bias there," Story said. "Where else would they like that (voting) to be done?"

Clark suggested voting at schools, as the county has done in years past. Most of the county's polling places are in churches, fire stations and community centers.

"If it's a repeal vote like this or an issue that has a particular tinge of the church taking a stance, it (another location) is definitely something to seek," Clark said.

School polling locations were phased out about a decade ago because of space and concerns about disruption and student safety. Price said switching poll places between elections can confuse voters and lower turnout. Schools might prompt the same complaints as churches because they'd be the sites for school board elections, she added.

Concerns about voting in churches have come up sporadically in the area during the past several years. In 2010, Bentonville and Rogers churches considered no longer offering voting because members were opposed to signs or groups campaigning nearby. A Fayetteville man in a polling place in 2004 was told to remove signs from his clothing complaining about the use of churches.

"There's not a lot of public buildings that could handle the number of voters they would need," Price said. "I'm not sure what the real solution is for that."

NW News on 12/14/2014