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WASHINGTON LETTER Oct-29-2004 (800 words) Backgrounder. xxxn

Secrets of confessional and voting booth draw closer at ballot time

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The secrets of the confessional and the voting booth are very close -- at least physically on Election Day. The reason: Many churches and church buildings across the United States serve as polling places.

In a presidential election year in which the religious views and values of both candidates grew in importance and controversy, the use of churches indicates that religion and politics can mix smoothly when it comes to helping citizens exercise their right to vote.

"We wanted to help the community and society," said Father Fernando Compaired, pastor of Mother of Our Redeemer Church in Miami, in recounting why three years ago the parish accepted a request from the Miami-Dade County Board of Elections that it be a polling place.

His parish is in a newly developed part of northwest Miami.

"We are a growing area. There are few places that can be used. There are no schools close by," said Father Compaired.

The result is that the 1,500-family parish puts up with the temporary inconvenience of closing its operations at 5 p.m. on the Monday before the election so voting officials can transform the parish hall into a polling place.

Basically, it means that the 8:30 a.m. Tuesday Mass has to be canceled, said Father Compaired, with the parish returning to normal Wednesday morning.

This will be the first year the parish hosts a presidential election. It also marks the first time Spanish-born Father Compaired votes in the United States. He became a citizen recently. But he won't vote at his parish as it still does not have a rectory. The priest lives in another precinct.

"I'll vote at a fire station," he said.

Throughout the United States, churches and synagogues are used as polling places, especially where there are not enough public buildings to meet needs.

"So many people go to churches and know where they are," said Mari Nasir, election specialist for the election board of McLennan County, Texas.

The county includes Crawford, where President George W. Bush, the Republican nominee, votes. In McLennan, 24 of the 83 polling places are churches. In Crawford, though, the only voting place is a fire station.

In Democratic contender Sen. John Kerry's home state of Massachusetts, there may well be more than 100 churches and synagogues used as polling places in the 2,100 voting precincts, said Brian McNiff, spokesman for William Galvin, secretary of the commonwealth of Massachusetts.

"There is no prohibition against using churches and synagogues. The law doesn't say anything about it," he said.

The parish hall of Holy Name Church in Boston alone is the voting place for four districts, said McNiff.

His boss, Galvin, is the Massachusetts official responsible for the statewide election system.

There are no national figures on how many churches and synagogues are voting sites, but the practice is popular, especially within the shadow of the White House. In the District of Columbia, 38 of the 142 polling places -- accounting for 27 percent -- are churches of various Christian denominations.

Election officials in several states noted that voting booths are rarely placed in the actual worship areas of church property.

"The pews get in the way," said McNiff.

Used are the parish halls, auditoriums, parochial schools and other large areas of open space in buildings attached to the parish.

Decisions on locating polling places are made by local election officials, usually at the county level, based on location, general accessibility, accessibility for the disabled and enough space to accommodate voting booths, election workers and observers.

"Believe me, local officials know their county. They know the best places, what draws people in," said Mary Dewer, Maryland Board of Elections communications director.

Church buildings are often chosen because "we need voting places as close as possible to where people live," said Dewer. "We want to make it as easy as possible for people to get to a polling place."

Election officials said there has never been a serious legal challenge to using churches and synagogues as polling places.

Ann McGeehan, Texas director of elections, said there are occasional complaints that churches are inappropriate.

More common, she said, are complaints when people have to vote in a church building and the church has taken a stand on a ballot issue they don't like. McGeehan cited "wet-dry" votes in which people are asked to vote "yes" or "no" on permitting local liquor sales.

But there is no clause in Texas law that allows people to seek a change of venue if they do not want to vote in a church.

Maryland has such a provision.

"A voter can request a polling place change or an absentee ballot if entering a church conflicts with bonafide beliefs or practices," said Dewer.


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