Court Concluded That Churches Can Be Used for Polling Places

Benefits of holding elections at churches outweighs slight burden on freedom of religion.

Key point: The use of churches as polling places in local elections does not violate the constitutional prohibition of the establishment of a religion.

A federal appeals court rejected an atheist's contention that the use of churches as polling places violated the first amendment.

The court observed that "we find frivolous plaintiff's argument that his atheistic beliefs do not permit him to enter a church and that, therefore, he is denied his right to vote when his precinct polling place is an Episcopal church."

A state election board defended the practice of using churches as polling places as follows: "Church buildings are located throughout a city, including in the residential areas of which many precincts consist; they have parking lots; and they typically have a commons areal, parish hall, foyer, nursery or some other such nonconsecrated portion of the church building which can be used as a polling place." The election board pointed out that churches representing several denominations were used, and that none was favored.

The court concluded: "[W]e conclude that by voting in a church building plaintiff is not required to attest to the nature of his religious beliefs, and that the burden of free exercise of religious beliefs is so slight that it does not begin to outweigh the interest of the state in having available to it the additional polling places which the use of the churches affords." Otero v. State Election Board of Oklahoma, 975 F.2d 738 (10th Cir. 1992).

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