- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 7, 2017

FREDERICK, Md. (AP) - For some people, voting in a house of worship is uncomfortable because of the intersection of church and state.

Frederick Alderwoman Donna Kuzemchak is one. For years, she has tried unsuccessfully to remove religion from politics in city elections.

“It’s something I’ve asked for every (election) year,” Kuzemchak said of seeking alternatives for the four churches used as polling places.

“It’s separation of church and state to me,” she explained. “Any time somebody has to go into somebody else’s place of worship to vote, from the public perspective, it can cause anxiety. Not for all people, certainly, but for some people. It’s a matter of access. Access is physical and also mental.”

Partly because of Kuzemchak’s concerns, the city Board of Supervisors of Elections looked into changes for the 2017 election. The board also is acting on concerns from other aldermen about overcrowding and convenience related to precincts and polling places used in 2013.

Board members and city legal employees made diligent efforts to find alternatives for the churches, to no avail. The city has six polling places.

While Kuzemchak was disappointed that sufficient alternatives could not be found, she said she appreciates the effort to look into her concerns and the church officials for opening up their spaces.

“I appreciate the churches who are willing to change for that day to not be a place of worship but to be a place of public gathering and public business,” she said. “It’s truly an amazing thing because a church doesn’t have to do that. I think that as I talk about access, I want to commend those churches that are willing to really, in essence, change who they are for that day.”

University System of Maryland Regents Professor Mark Garber, a scholar on constitutional law and politics, agreed that voters should not be required to “go to a religious place of worship in order to fulfill a civic right.” However, he said the U.S. Supreme Court has not given guidance.

“The Supreme Court actually has not decided,” he said. “Some courts have indicated this may be a violation of church and state. The question is just simply one that there is no definitive legal answer to.”

He said organizations such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation have spoken out against voting in churches. Garber said he is not one of the protestors, but he stands firmly behind the group’s message.

“The point is, this is not an appropriate place (to vote),” Garber said. “People may be subconsciously affected. They may see things in a church that may affect them.”

A 2009 piece posted on the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s website says: “It is the Foundation’s position that churches should not be used for polling places. These days the Latin cross, the traditional symbol for Christianity, is increasingly seen by many as a symbol of political intimidation. In addition, many churches, especially in the most recent elections, have abused their tax-exempt status by intervening in political campaigns and have clearly signaled to their congregations and the general public who they favor in a given election.

“Furthermore, across the country there have been numerous cases of churches exploiting their position as polling sites to promote their churches or causes (i.e., handing out literature on the church, signing up voters to participate in bible studies, and posting anti-abortion signs near voting booths).”

Frederick County also uses churches as polling places. In 2016, nine out of more than 60 polling places in the county were churches, not counting the four in the city. But unlike in the city, which has its own election laws, county voters can request to change polling places if they feel uncomfortable.

“Under state law, if someone does not want to use a house of worship as a polling location, they are allowed to request a change to a polling location that essentially has the same ballot style,” Frederick County Election Director Stuart Harvey said.

“I’ve had exactly one individual over the many years I’ve been here request to have her polling place changed and we were able to do that for her,” Harvey added.

In the city, Legislative Clerk Phyllis Hane said voters can fill out an absentee ballot or participate in early voting if they do not want to vote in churches. All early voting is slated to be held at the Frederick Senior Center on Taney Avenue.

James Devilbiss, a Hood College instructor who specializes in statistical analysis, said he has not personally studied the subject of voting in churches but does vote in one. He said he has never experienced an issue with it because the room where he votes is completely separate from the sanctuary.

“You don’t go into the church proper,” he said. “You go into a door that goes directly into the rec room.”

Alderman Josh Bokee said that while he had unrelated concerns regarding Cornerstone Fellowship Church as a polling place, Kuzemchak was the only elected official who seemed to have a concern with separation of church and state.

Mayor Randy McClement said he did not see a problem with using churches as polling places, but appreciated the election board looking into Kuzemchak’s request.


Information from: The Frederick (Md.) News-Post, https://www.fredericknewspost.com

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