Voters who object to casting their ballots in churches may vote by absentee ballot, a Salt Lake County legal official said Tuesday in response to a question from attorney Brian Barnard.
Barnard asked the county attorney's office last week to "revisit" the question of whether the use of churches as polling places violates the constitutional rights of some voters.When the issue was first raised by the Society of Separationists earlier this year, Deputy County Attorney Gavin Anderson issued an opinion indicating that the practice was not illegal.
Of the approximately 700 voting places in Salt Lake County, about 30 are in churches or church-owned buildings, according to Anderson. Of those 30, about seven are in buildings owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the rest are in Catholic and Protestant buildings, he said.
"The LDS Church has been quite reluctant to let us use their buildings and has done so only after we assured them that there were not other suitable sites available," Anderson added.
Barnard said the earlier legal opinion was unacceptable, and he threatened legal action on behalf of a recently excommunicated Mormon whose polling place is the church for the ward from which he was excommunicated. "Needless to say, he feels less than comfortable with returning to that building to vote," Barnard said.
"Just as some persons might be offended if they were required to vote in a neighborhood beer joint, a state liquor store or an X-rated movie house, so, too, may persons be offended by having to vote in a church of which they are not members," Barnard said in a letter to Anderson.
He also said that members of the Orthodox Jewish faith are generally precluded by religious tenets from entering buildings of other faiths.
Barnard said his client is not eligible to vote by absentee ballot because he doesn't fall within any of the three requisite categories: He is not absent from the county, physically disabled or serving as a judge in another district.
Anderson responded that Utah tends to interpret its absentee ballot provisions liberally and that the term "disabled" can be interpreted to mean someone who is unable to physically enter a particular voting place. Such an interpretation would include a person who is prevented from doing so by religious, moral or ethical considerations, he said.
"We have no problem with his client voting by absentee ballot," Anderson said.
Barnard suggested in his letter that the use of state liquor stores as polling places has some merit because they are always closed for regular business on election days.