Are Church and State Separate During Elections?
SURVEY: On Election Days, the restrictions for "electioneering" are to maintain a distance of 25 feet from the entrance and not block the pathway. But what about a whole yard full of white crosses near the main voting entrance?
A St. Louis County voter got more than he bargained for when he went to a neighborhood church to cast his vote Tuesday. He said he was exposed to an outdoor display of crosses and anti-abortion signage, as shown in the photo that accompanies this article. He said he has no problem with the church expressing an opinion, but he does not believe this is appropriate for a polling place—especially when he knew church representatives erected the crosses just days prior to Tuesday's election.
He said the same church, Assumption Parish Rectory, 4725 Mattis Road, St. Louis, put up white crosses the week before voters went there to vote during the primary election cycle as well.
See related article: Church's Anti-Abortion Display Offends Voter, Prompts Electioneering Questions
Voter Lynn Byrd, a resident of unincorporated St. Louis County near Lemay Ferry, spent the last 24 hours determining to whom he could file a complaint about the church's choice to surround the voting area with what he believes is a message clearly intended to influence voters.
He emailed the League of Women Voters of St. Louis, and their suggestion was for Byrd to request his concern be placed on the agenda of an upcoming meeting of the St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners.
He contacted the Federal Election Commission, but they encouraged him to instead contact the Election Assistance Commission (EAC). The EAC is an independent, bipartisan commission charged with developing guidance to meet Help America Vote Act of 2002 requirements, adopting voluntary voting system guidelines, and serving as a national clearinghouse of information on election administration.
Byrd said he sent letters to St. Louis County Commissioners on Thursday.
A Perspective from Another Church that Hosts Elections
Christopher Keating, pastor of Woodlawn Chapel Presbyterian Church in Wildwood, said he and congregants consider it a privilege to provide a polling place, especially as a way to give back to the community. The church served Tuesday as a polling spot, and has done so for many years.
"I suppose every church that hosts voting approaches this differently. We were fortunate to welcome upwards of 1,500 residents through our doors on Election Day. Our hope is that anyone would find us to be a warm environment, no matter what their faith background or perspective. We want everyone who comes into our building to have a positive experience," said Keating.
"With that in mind, we work with election officials to provide the most welcoming space possible."
Keating said there is never an attempt to advocate for particular political views at the church during polling. "For one thing, our members hold diverse opinions on all these issues."
He said IRS officials send reminders to churches and other nonprofit organizations not to take partisan stands during elections. "It is permissible for churches to take positions on public policy issues, including issues that divide candidates in an election. However, we are not allowed to advocate or encourage voting in a particular way."
Keating said church involvement in politics takes different forms. "In African-American traditions, it is not uncommon for politicians to speak from pulpits. I know the Catholic bishops have taken an increasingly vocal stance in reminding church members and employees that their votes should reflect Catholic moral teachings."
But Keating said the cross display at Assumption Parish Rectory was not, strictly speaking, an endorsement of a partisan candidate, in his opinion. "However, it seems to me a gray area."
Official Laws to Consider, per a Jefferson City Expert
Missouri House Research Attorney Jason Glahn, who staffs the Elections Committee, said he thought crosses are a vague-enough symbol that they probably do not relate to a “candidate or question to be voted on” at an election.
"Election offense statutes would be construed very strictly because they impose penalties and therefore it would probably be necessary to link the anti-abortion theme more specifically to a candidate or issue to charge an actual violation," he said.
Glahn said it is possible some types of “symbols” would rise to the level of causing a “breach of the peace” or “disorderly conduct” if deliberately placed near polling places. He provided an example of these categories as "if the Klan put a burning cross or a noose nearby."
"But I’m guessing most judges won’t think a cross display at a church rises to that level of offensiveness likely to incite an imminent breach of the peace," he said.
Class four election offenses.
115.637. The following offenses, and any others specifically so described by law, shall be class four election offenses and are deemed misdemeanors not connected with the exercise of the right of suffrage. Conviction for any of these offenses shall be punished by imprisonment of not more than one year or by a fine of not more than two thousand five hundred dollars or by both such imprisonment and fine:
(1) Stealing or willfully concealing, defacing, mutilating, or destroying any sample ballots that may be furnished by an organization or individual at or near any voting place on election day, except that this subdivision shall not be construed so as to interfere with the right of an individual voter to erase or cause to be erased on a sample ballot the name of any candidate and substituting the name of the person for whom he intends to vote; or to dispose of the received sample ballot;
(2) Printing, circulating, or causing to be printed or circulated, any false and fraudulent sample ballots which appear on their face to be designed as a fraud upon voters;
(3) Purposefully giving a printed or written sample ballot to any qualified voter which is intended to mislead the voter;
(4) On the part of any candidate for election to any office of honor, trust, or profit, offering or promising to discharge the duties of such office for a less sum than the salary, fees, or emoluments as fixed by law or promising to pay back or donate to any public or private interest any portion of such salary, fees, or emolument as an inducement to voters;
(5) On the part of any canvasser appointed to canvass any registration list, willfully failing to appear, refusing to continue, or abandoning such canvass or willfully neglecting to perform his duties in making such canvass or willfully neglecting any duties lawfully assigned to him;
(6) On the part of any employer, making, enforcing, or attempting to enforce any order, rule, or regulation or adopting any other device or method to prevent an employee from engaging in political activities, accepting candidacy for nomination to, election to, or the holding of, political office, holding a position as a member of a political committee, soliciting or receiving funds for political purpose, acting as chairman or participating in a political convention, assuming the conduct of any political campaign, signing, or subscribing his name to any initiative, referendum, or recall petition, or any other petition circulated pursuant to law;
(7) On the part of any person authorized or employed to print official ballots, or any person employed in printing ballots, giving, delivering, or knowingly permitting to be taken any ballot to or by any person other than the official under whose direction the ballots are being printed, any ballot in any form other than that prescribed by law, or with unauthorized names, with names misspelled, or with the names of candidates arranged in any way other than that authorized by law;
(8) On the part of any election authority or official charged by law with the duty of distributing the printed ballots, or any person acting on his behalf, knowingly distributing or causing to be distributed any ballot in any manner other than that prescribed by law;
(9) Any person having in his possession any official ballot, except in the performance of his duty as an election authority or official, or in the act of exercising his individual voting privilege;
(10) Willfully mutilating, defacing, or altering any ballot before it is delivered to a voter;
(11) On the part of any election judge, willfully absenting himself from the polls on election day without good cause or willfully detaining any election material or equipment and not causing it to be produced at the voting place at the opening of the polls or within fifteen minutes thereafter;
(12) On the part of any election authority or official, willfully neglecting, refusing, or omitting to perform any duty required of him by law with respect to holding and conducting an election, receiving and counting out the ballots, or making proper returns;
(13) On the part of any election judge, or party watcher or challenger, furnishing any information tending in any way to show the state of the count to any other person prior to the closing of the polls;
(14) On the part of any voter, except as otherwise provided by law, allowing his ballot to be seen by any person with the intent of letting it be known how he is about to vote or has voted, or knowingly making a false statement as to his inability to mark his ballot;
(15) On the part of any election judge, disclosing to any person the name of any candidate for whom a voter has voted;
(16) Interfering, or attempting to interfere, with any voter inside a polling place;
(17) On the part of any person at any registration site, polling place, counting location or verification location, causing any breach of the peace or engaging in disorderly conduct, violence, or threats of violence whereby such registration, election, count or verification is impeded or interfered with;
(18) Exit polling, surveying, sampling, electioneering, distributing election literature, posting signs or placing vehicles bearing signs with respect to any candidate or question to be voted on at an election on election day inside the building in which a polling place is located or within twenty-five feet of the building's outer door closest to the polling place, or, on the part of any person, refusing to remove or permit removal from property owned or controlled by him, any such election sign or literature located within such distance on such day after request for removal by any person;
(19) Stealing or willfully defacing, mutilating, or destroying any campaign yard sign on private property, except that this subdivision shall not be construed to interfere with the right of any private property owner to take any action with regard to campaign yard signs on the owner's property and this subdivision shall not be construed to interfere with the right of any candidate, or the candidate's designee, to remove the candidate's campaign yard sign from the owner's private property after the election day.
(L. 1977 H.B. 101 § 15.020, A.L. 1982 S.B. 526, A.L. 1985 H.B. 620, A.L. 2003 H.B. 511)