Does the separation of church and state allow political signs at nonprofit voter precincts? The short answer is yes, but it’s a bit more complex.
There was some confusion Tuesday regarding whether nonprofit voter precincts can have political signs on their property.
At least four churches in Beaver County asked campaign volunteers to remove their political signs on Tuesday – even those abiding by the election bureau’s required 10-feet distance from the polling location.
Some campaigners were confused, saying political signs were permitted during previous elections.
Jim Frederick, a member of the Chippewa Dems, was representing Democrats at Chippewa United Methodist Church’s Community Life Center during the election Tuesday. He said election officials at the center told the Chippewa Dems to remove their political signs.
The Chippewa Dems put out signs for former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, Democratic candidate for the 47th Senatorial District, Stephen Krizan, and Democratic candidate for the 14th Legislative District, Zachary Wilson, more than 10 feet from the Community Life Center. All of which were asked to be taken down by election officials at the facility.
“It’s frustrating,” Frederick said. “We’ve been trying to follow the rules.”
But the rules feel inconsistent, according to Frederick and other volunteers representing campaigns across the county.
“Let’s have a consistent rule that follows the state law instead of an arbitrary decision by some combination of the church and the judge of elections,” Frederick said.
The Rev. Allen Brooks, pastor at Chippewa United Methodist Church, said the church’s policy regarding political signs has not changed. In fact, Brooks said this year they were a little more lenient, as they didn’t have the signs removed until 3 p.m. on Tuesday.
Normally, Brooks said if the church sees political signs on its property, election officials are informed and they’re the ones that move them.
Mark Hoenig, a volunteer with the Chippewa Dems at the Chippewa United Methodist Church on Tuesday, said that previously, political signs on the property have never been an issue.
However, the group was even forced to take down a sign that read “Thank you for voting. Stay Safe & Healthy. From the Chippewa Dems.”
At Pathway Church, where the Chippewa Dems were also present, they, too, were asked to take down their signs. However, after covering up the word “Dems” with tape, the group was allowed to keep the sign up.
A similar situation also happened at Ashes to Life church in Beaver Falls.
Faith Veon, the Beaver Falls Democratic Committee chairperson, said she’s worked the polls in Beaver Falls for years and has never been asked to remove her signs.
“It’s an interesting development this year, because normally it’s not a problem,” Veon said.
The National Council of Nonprofits told The Times on Friday the issue is a bit more nuanced.
Rich Cohen, the chief communications and chief operating officer with the National Council of Nonprofits, said the question of whether or not nonprofits that are voter precincts can have political signs on their property somewhat depends.
“It puts two different things together,” he said. “One is what is allowed outside of a voting precinct. The other is a longstanding law known as the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits nonprofits from supporting or opposing a candidate for elected office, from the President all the way down to city council.”
The Johnson Amendment was enacted to ensure a strict separation between church and state. According to the National Council of Nonprofits, the Johnson Amendment provides that nonprofit organizations “in exchange for the privilege of receiving donations that are tax-deductible to the donors, may not support or oppose candidates for elected office. Thus, to keep that special privilege, 501(c)(3) organizations may not endorse candidates or use any of their assets to support or oppose specific candidates.”
Nonprofit leaders are still allowed to vote, and can even publicly speak out about certain political issues. However, they cannot endorse candidates.
Cohen said nonprofits – which includes churches – that are voter precincts are permitted to have political signs on their property as long as the nonprofit itself did not put the signs up.
“Nonprofits can’t take sides in the elections,” Cohen said. “They’re allowed to hold voter forums and host events as long as both candidates have an equal opportunity to attend.”
For nonprofits that are voter precincts, as long as both Democrats and Republicans have equal opportunity to place their partisan signs on the property, “that’s generally OK,” Cohen said.
“If one favors one candidate over another, that’s when you run into an issue,” he said. “If they, for example, had two signs up: one for President Trump and one for Vice President Biden… then the churches can’t get in trouble because they aren’t taking a side.”
The election law side is separate, Cohen said.
In Pennsylvania, campaign signs and materials must be at least 10-feet away from the polling location.
Deputy solicitor Nate Morgan said Beaver County received calls about one church that wasn’t allowing candidates or campaigns to post signs at the polling place. To his understanding the law doesn’t mandate that a polling place must allow signs, he said — just that they can’t allow one candidate to post signs and prohibit another from doing so.
Some nonprofit voter precincts decided the best route to remaining nonpartisan is to not permit any sort of political sign on their premises.
The Rev. Mark Ongley, pastor of Ashes to Life church, decided to not permit political signs at its polling precinct this year. The Beaver Falls precinct, which has some of the largest turn out in the city, in a previous election had political signs in its yard, but Ongley said it was “only because I didn’t notice them until the day after the election.”
He said he spoke with police on Monday, asking about signage on the church’s property.
“And wanting to make sure the church in no way appeared to be endorsing any candidate, I decided that all signage needed to be located near people who were actually promoting candidates and causes,” Ongley said.
According to Veon, the church asked that she move her signs to the sidewalk area, which is a public space, instead of on church property.
“I don’t really understand why the church would feel like people walking to the polls would think that they have a political opinion when everybody’s represented,” Veon said. “The divisiveness of this election is being felt by our churches. They’re trying to separate themselves as much as they can, but they’re still hosting.”
Ongley said he appreciates the principle of the separation of church and state.
“Looking back on church history, anytime there’s been enmeshment between church and state, things have gone awry,” he said.
Daveen Rae Kurutz contributed to this report.