SWANZEY — A number of people are asking the town of Swanzey to stop using a Whitcomb Road church as its polling place amid concerns about Facebook posts made by the church’s pastor.
Community members have reached out to the Swanzey Board of Selectmen over the past few days, asking that the polls be moved from the Christian Life Fellowship church to a secular location.
In emails to the town on Sunday and Monday, at least two people cited inflammatory posts from Pastor Dave Berman’s personal Facebook account. Posts made over the past several months target a number of causes that tend to be championed by people whose politics lean left — including the Black Lives Matter movement and the mandated use of face masks as an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
In addition, a Change.org petition has been started to urge the selectboard to change the town’s polling place, calling it “inappropriate” to use places of worship for voting. The petition, which also cites the Facebook posts, had 369 signatures as of 8 a.m. Wednesday.
A July 3 post on Berman’s page that has been circulated on Facebook is headlined “No second lockdown” and advocates against the required use of masks, along with stay-at-home orders and mandated business closures. Another post, also from July 3, describes the Black Lives Matter movement as an “anti-Christ, pro sexual and gender perversion Marxist organization that wants to eradicate the nuclear family.”
A May 9 tweet from Berman’s Twitter account used a hashtag associated with a conspiracy theory about the coronavirus pandemic’s origins.
Swanzey resident Ed Sheldon is one of those who sent an email to the selectboard asking that the polling place be changed. He also submitted it to The Sentinel as a letter to the editor on Monday.
“While I have always had some trepidation about a church as polling place given our country’s principle of separation of church and state, I have accepted it as likely the most central and convenient location with proper handicapped access and space to host such an event,” Sheldon wrote in the email. “However, recent proclamations by ... Berman have brought me to the realization that we cannot trust that a fair and safe election can be held there in November.”
He told The Sentinel Tuesday that he first saw the posts within the past few days, when a meme posted from Berman’s Facebook account urging “patriotic disobedience” in response to measures against the COVID-19 pandemic — the same one with the “No second lockdown” headline — began making the rounds on the social-media platform.
In the email, Sheldon said he doesn’t mean to infringe on Berman’s right to free speech. But he said he worries about holding an election in a place where the organization’s leadership is advocating against safety precautions, including those recommended by health experts. He suggested moving voting to Whitcomb Hall, Monadnock Regional Middle/High School, the Swanzey Community House or another location.
In addition to the selectboard, Sheldon also sent his email to N.H. Sen. Jay Kahn of Keene; N.H. Reps. Jennie Gomarlo, Bruce Tatro and Barry Faulkner of Swanzey; and indicated he was forwarding it to U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan; and U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, all Democrats.
Swanzey Town Administrator Michael Branley told The Sentinel in an email Tuesday afternoon that it’s not up to the church to implement safety measures while people are voting.
“It would primarily be the responsibility of the town and its election officials to ensure reasonable safety precautions are followed related to COVID 19 during elections,” he wrote.
Another town resident, Robert Audette, wrote a similar letter to the selectboard as Sheldon, which he posted to his Facebook page and emailed to Branley as well as to Gomarlo and Tatro on Sunday. He expressed concerns about how members of marginalized groups might feel about entering the church after reading the Facebook posts from Berman.
“I would ask the board of selectmen to speak with the members of the community who are LGBTQ or People of Color and determine how they feel about going to a location where its preacher claims in a public forum ‘the education system has been indoctrinating your kids with perversion, communism and anti white racism,’ “ Audette wrote.
Sorting out differing views
Reached by The Sentinel Tuesday, Berman said the town is free to move the polling place from Christian Life Fellowship if it wants to, but also emphasized that some of his posts have been taken out of context. For example, he said he has not been telling people they shouldn’t wear face masks, but rather said he is against the government-mandated use of them, and he doesn’t feel governors have the right to force churches to close down, citing the First Amendment.
As for the Black Lives Matter movement, he said his objection is not based on prejudice against people of color and that all people are welcome in the church. Instead, he expressed a concern that the organization has roots in Marxism, a philosophy established by 19th-century German thinker Karl Marx, known for his role in the evolution of communism.
A connection between Black Lives Matter and Marxism has been reported by some conservative media outlets after a 2015 video surfaced showing movement co-founder Patrisse Cullors calling herself a "trained Marxist." A search of the movement's website showed no reference to the ideology.
Berman said he’s also upset about the violence that has been associated with some recent protests organized in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and said the organization has not condemned those who are involved.
“I’m opposed totally to that organization. Not to any message concerning whether people’s lives matter, since as a minister, I’ve ministered to every kind of person you can imagine, and I love every person,” he said. “Makes no difference to me what color their skin is.”
Berman also took aim at Keene City Councilor Randy Filiault, who has been critical of what he’s posted and circulated it to others. Though noting that Filiault is entitled to his opinions, Berman said a more appropriate way to challenge someone’s beliefs is to debate them respectfully.
Filiault said he didn’t know Berman or his church until the pastor was vocal against a mask ordinance he proposed for Keene in May that he later withdrew. Filiault said he first saw one of Berman’s recent posts after a friend from Swanzey shared it, and he thought his constituents in Keene would be interested to see it.
“I’ll always point out anyone that posts hateful comments on social media,” Filiault said, before referencing the ad hoc committee Keene Mayor George Hansel recently launched as part of a series of anti-racism measures in the city. “We’re about to have our first meeting on social injustice, and hateful posts only hurt and not help.”
This debate is ‘nothing new’
Swanzey Selectboard Chairman Kenneth Colby Jr. confirmed Tuesday that the town has received communications in recent days about the location of the town’s polls, but noted that the debate over moving where elections are held is nothing new.
“The basic problem that exists is trying to find a place that’s big enough and that has parking and other amenities,” Colby said.
Swanzey residents have been voting at Christian Life Fellowship church for more than a decade. And although elections in area communities are generally held in town halls, meetinghouses, community centers and schools, Keene and Walpole both have polling places in houses of worship.
Rep. Gomarlo said the Swanzey Democratic Committee has been interested in finding a new polling place for the past four or five years.
Even before Berman’s Facebook posts, she noted, she had concerns about using the church for elections due to its parking lot, which she said is not well lit and can become dangerous during bad weather. She said the Facebook post regarding COVID-19 safety measures “does not inspire confidence” that the church will be a safe place for voters this fall.
Gomarlo, who is running for her second term in Cheshire House District 12, said she has approached the selectboard to ask Monadnock Regional Middle/High School to host elections, most recently in January. However, she noted that the school has had concerns about students being in the building during voting, both because the process could disturb classes and because in New Hampshire, voters are able to wear weapons to the polls.
This story has been updated to correct the fact that Gomarlo asked the selectboard to approach the school district about hosting elections and did not ask the school district directly.