RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A humanist group is claiming the state of North Carolina violated the First Amendment by allowing voting in churches that advocated anti-gay political stances.
A church signboard reading “A true marriage is male and female and God” greeted precinct W28 voters who walked up to the voting both to cast ballots on a state constitutional amendment to prevent gay marriage. Pictures of the billboard, displayed next to “vote here” signs in front of the Devon Park United Methodist Church in Wilmington, N.C., went viral. The humanist group claims the state violated the First Amendment by hosting voting at partisan churches, but the state says the practice is perfectly legal and will not change.
The Appignani Humanist Legal Center, which advocates the non-religious views of humanism, sent a letter to the state board three weeks after the May vote. The letter outlines concerns about using churches as polling places and alleges the state violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
However, the group stopped short of threating legal action. Bill Burgess, lead legal counsel for the group, said he has no plans to sue the state or the counties that select the voting locations.
“What we’re looking for is a change in policy,” Burgess said. “It’s hard to fight this one county at a time. It makes sense for state board of election to set state policy.”
About 500 of the state’s nearly 2,800 voting locations are churches. But the use of religious institutions is neither unique to North Carolina nor uncommon. Gregory M. Lipper, Senior Litigation Counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said he regularly receives similar complaints from across the nation. He said that he opposes the practice as well, but that church voting locations are not one of the prevalent First Amendment battles.
“If there are non-religious alternatives there’s no reason for the government to use a church,” Lipper said. “If it chooses to use a church, it suggests that the government has a religious motive rather than a logistical one.”
The state responded to the humanist group on Monday.
“The North Carolina State Board of Elections is without authority to change by policy or administrative rule the clear guidelines of the statutes as they pertain to the selection of voting locations by counties …” wrote Don Wright, legal counsel for the state board of elections. “That would be a matter for legislative action by the General Assembly.”
Furthermore, Wright wrote, the use of churches as voting locations is “completely legal” does not violate the U.S. Constitution.
Wright said there are no plans to change state policy, and said counties will continue to choose their own polling locations. Wright said, as a general rule, counties already look to use public and non-religious buildings before churches.
Pastor William H. Pearsall Sr. of the Methodist church in Wilmington did not return a message left by the Associated Press.
Although similar issues have been litigated before, the courts have never sided with individuals who want voting locations separated from churches. In the only two appellate cases dealing with similar issues, courts in Oklahoma and New York both found the practice was legal. In general, the rulings state that early or absentee voting options are available for people who are offended by religious imagery or messages.
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