It’s been five years since the last time Swanzey election officials were asked to remove the Christian Life Fellowship Church as a town polling place. And this time, it’s personal.
In 2015, the request came from afar, something called the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based group that seems to exist solely for the purpose of starting such battles. Then, the argument was that a Swanzey voter had complained, noting religious symbols, such as a cross, Bible verses and a sign urging support for our troops, were clearly displayed in the church while voting took place.
We’re not sure why someone would bypass the selectmen and go through a Wisconsin advocacy group to raise the issue, but raised it was. The board took up the question, and explored its options, ultimately deciding to keep the church as its polling place. Voting used to be at Monadnock Regional Middle/High School, and selectmen asked if that could occur again, but the Monadnock school board unanimously shot down the idea — at least for that year — citing safety concerns for students.
Voting in a church sanctuary or function room is allowed in New Hampshire, and quite common, including in this region. It’s hardly an abridgement of the First Amendment on its face. There’s no inherent political pressure to vote one way or another just because of the location. Rather, it’s nice of the church to offer the space.
This time, the controversy didn’t come from Wisconsin. It came via a number of local residents growing increasingly uncomfortable with social media posts by the church pastor.
In emails to the town last week, 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.
Hateful messages, such as purportedly calling Black Lives Matter protesters “anti-Christ, pro sexual and gender perversion Marxist,” could indeed make voters uncomfortable. More importantly, as the region and world struggle to deal with a virulent pandemic, Berman reportedly urged “patriotic disobedience” in response to measures against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Town Administrator Michael Branley noted the town, not the church, would be responsible for ensuring the health and safety of voters come Election Day. But those wary of contracting the virus could might understandably be leery of visiting a site at which people regularly gather that is run by someone who’s made clear he doesn’t believe in health officials’ advice for staying safe.
A Change.org online petition asks for the board to move the polling location, both citing Berman’s posts and saying “It is not appropriate to have any place of worship to be utilized as a place of voting.” The petition had more than 700 signatures as of Thursday afternoon. Again, we disagree that a church is inherently unsuitable as a polling place. But Berman’s comments are another thing.
The selectmen should again explore their options, this time with perhaps more urgency.
As we noted five years ago, New Hampshire is a small state, largely rural, where buildings large enough to accommodate voting are few and far between. Elsewhere in the Granite State, elections are held at a ski lodge, a golf course, a Boys and Girls Club, senior centers, nursing homes, an Elks lodge, a summer camp, an apartment complex, a bed and breakfast and, in Rochester, a Home Depot.
Perhaps the high school, or even an elementary school, could host voting. No doubt Monadnock officials are still pondering how to deal with schools even being open this fall, so it could possibly be arranged.
Swanzey isn’t overflowing with options. There’s no Home Depot, although there are bed and breakfast inns and a couple of airport hangars, if Keene will cooperate. And a few large apartment complexes have recently been proposed.
If the schools are out because of student safety — though Keene voters manage to coexist with students at Symonds School and Keene Middle School each Election Day — and the church is deemed problematic because a few voters might feel uncomfortable, the time may be right for another option: With expanded absentee voting in the state, anyone can vote from their own home. What could be more comfortable and secure than that?