Washington County commissioners plan no changes after group requests an end to polling locations in churches

FAYETTEVILLE -- Washington County's Election Commission will keep using churches as polling locations despite one group asking it to stop doing so.

The commission took no action Thursday on a letter sent by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The commission will keep its current polling locations, most of which are in churches, said Jennifer Price, election coordinator.

The foundation is a nonprofit organization promoting the "constitutional principle of separation of state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to non-theism," according to the group's website.

Among the eight polling centers approved for an Aug. 9 special election, all are churches, according to a document provided by Price. Among 17 Fayetteville polling locations, 16 are in churches, documents show.

Foundation attorney Rebecca S. Markert said in her June 16 letter at least one voter complained about using churches as polling sites. The organization worries holding elections in churches would influence or intimidate voters, Markert wrote.

The foundation urged the commission to look at having voting places in businesses, public schools, libraries or firehouses, according to the letter.

"The Washington County Election Commission has the great responsibility of assuring selecting polling places accessible to the public but which will remain free of intimidation," she said.

If churches are still chosen as polling sites, "patently religious or political messages" should be hidden, Market said.

There's no legal reason polling locations cannot be held in churches or other religious buildings, Steve Zega, county attorney, said. Religious symbols in those buildings also aren't required to be covered, he said.

Commissioners said they have struggled previously to find adequate voting sites.

"Practically speaking, there aren't a whole lot of options," Commissioner Max Deitchler said.

Schools previously asked commissioners not to have elections on their grounds for safety reasons and because voting could disrupt classes, Zega said. Private businesses often aren't large enough or don't want the business disruption, commissioners said.

Churches are convenient, easily recognizable, have the needed space and aren't open during Election Day, officials said.

This is the first letter from the foundation, Price said. The letter appears to be more of a request than a demand, Zega said.

Voters have been concerned over polling locations in churches previously. Voters called Price when a polling location was held inside a church that had earlier allowed meeting space for opponents of a nondiscrimination ordinance. The legislation passed last year, despite polling centers held in churches, Zega said.

The commission isn't the only place receiving foundation letters. The foundation sent a letter, dated June 17, to the Gentry School District asking officials to stop holding prayers at high school graduations. The district has since agreed to stop prayers at graduation.

NW News on 07/08/2016

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