Separation of church and … polls?

Adrian Northrup

Bethesda Lutheran Church, 123 W. Hamilton Ave., will serve as one of 19 polling places in the city of Eau Claire on Tuesday – neutral locations where voters may go to express their political will.

On the lawn outside of the church, however, is a sign with a political message: “Vote Yes! For Marriage.”

Though the sign must come down on Election Day, it clearly expresses support of amending the state constitution to explicitly ban same-sex marriage and similar unions in Wisconsin, which voters will address through a referendum.

Officials, political scientists and students of various political persuasions reacted differently to the idea of a polling place advertising a political view – highlighting the difficult relationship between free speech and what some may feel is inappropriate.

In keeping with state statute, the city of Eau Claire allows polling places to post referendum positions until Election Day, when they are temporarily in public use.

“Up until Election Day, it’s private property,” City Clerk Donna Austad said.
Political science professors Rodd Freitag and Geoff Peterson agreed there’s no reason to believe posting such a position compromises a given polling place’s neutrality.

“I don’t think people think of churches or other such places as ‘polling places’ other than the day of the election,” Freitag said.

Neutral volunteers who act apart from any sort of affiliation with their polling place, Peterson said, should in theory preserve neutrality and prevent intimidation.

Pastor George Schweitzer said in Bethesda’s case, a board of church elders decided to display the sign. Expressing a position on gay marriage, he said, was an important priority, whether the church was a polling place or not.

“We decided that as long as this is an issue that we feel we support, we consider the impact of the issue on society more than the fact we’re a polling place,” he said.

But serving as an effective polling place, Schweitzer said, is still essential to Bethesda’s intentions of serving the community.

Students of various political affiliations agreed expressing a political view up until Election Day is a polling place’s right, though some felt it was still inappropriate.

College Republicans Secretary Michelle Voigt said a polling place compromises its image of neutrality when it advertises a political stance – even though in the case of Bethesda she agreed with their position.

“That kind of publicity . should be done on personal property like your home,” she said. “I just think they should have a little more integrity.”

Liberal students agreed that a property’s free speech rights are paramount, though they were concerned that some voters may feel uncomfortable voting at a venue with such an opinion.

“They’re expressing a view on something that’s basically being decided in their basements,” said Collin Hawkins, public relations director for College Democrats. “I think that does intimidate (some voters).”