Sticking to the script(ures): May primary still found improper marriage of church and state at polls

Women helping voters
An altercation between poll workers and a voter took place during the May primary over a controversial decision to leave a copy of the Bible on the registration table. | Image screenshot

Being a poll worker sounds like it can be a real slog.

Independently elected or appointed to the gig, these folks work a 13-hour day on average and are on the front lines for ensuring 1.1 million registered Philadelphians can exercise their right to vote. Depending on whether they attend an optional training, they make around $150 for their labor.

Generally, they come from all demographics and parts of the city.

And a small number of them, despite having no justification for believing so, think that Bibles belong displayed on the table at polling places. But for people who aren’t Christian, or who feel strongly about the need for separation of church and state, this can be an intimidating sight.

One such voter, a self-described “middle-aged white woman” who goes by Veronica, has been frustrated to find Bibles routinely displayed in her polling place at Ward 18, Division 15. She has confronted poll workers on multiple occasions and says she has been yelled at for her objections.

Veronica says her polling place is in the Olde Kensington neighborhood, located across the street from a mosque.

“Last year, I tried to show them [a Philly Mag article] and told them it was my understanding that all poll workers had been told to put the Bible away,” she said. “They yelled and ridiculed me last year too.” She decided to call a hotline about it, but when she went to vote on May 21 in Philly’s primary election, the Bible was still there.

This time, she recorded the interaction on video. Veronica claims that the poll workers saved some of their most vitriolic comments for after the recording ended.

“After I stopped filming and turned to walk away, I kept saying, ‘Well, there are a lot of non-Christians around,”’ Veronica reported. “The older woman said, ‘That’s what’s wrong with this country.’”

It seems the interaction was heated largely because of what it represented to the women involved.

“I was raised Catholic and have studied religion and mythology extensively, and I identify as an atheist,” Veronica said. “As an atheist, I find myself wanting to defend religious minorities more and more as I see religious intolerance on the rise in the [United States] and globally.”

So, why are the Bibles at polls in the first place?

According to Joe Lynch, an administrator at the Board of Elections, all Judges of Elections have the option to collect Bibles when they gather materials for their polling place. If they choose, they can use the book for the purposes of swearing in poll workers. The materials they are given also include instructions saying that after the swearing in, the Bible is to be put away.

According to Lynch, the instructions read as follows:

“The Bible is being made available for Election Board Officials who wish to use it while completing their Oaths of Office and if it is requested by anyone making an oath. After the Oaths of Office are completed and at all times not in use for an oath, please place the Bible in the election materials box.”

Lynch says that if someone makes a report to his office about the Bible being displayed at a poll, they will call or send someone out to tell the poll worker to put it away, but there’s nothing that can legally be done should they refuse.

This has reportedly been a repeat issue in several wards over the last few years, according to City Commissioner Al Schmidt, who did not comment directly on this incident but reiterated that any voter intimidation or obstacles to voting are concerns of the Commission. While there is no need for the Bibles being on display, he also says there’s no law in Philly against it. He also points out that many polling places are actually inside houses of worship.

Patrick Christmas, policy director for the Committee of Seventy, an organization that identifies itself as an “independent and nonpartisan advocate for better government in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania,” said he has heard many reports of voters upset that Bibles were out on tables.

“There is no reason they should be there,” Christmas said. “They should be used in the morning to swear in poll workers and go right back into the box and not seen by voters. I’d raise this question: the Bible is not the only book on which people can swear an oath, so I’m not sure why that’s the only resource or material for poll workers. There are routinely some voters who are put off by that, so it’s questionable why they’re still needed.”

According to a city official speaking on condition of anonymity, that route has been attempted. After multiple complaints from voters, Bibles were reportedly not included in Philly election materials in 2017, which caused an uproar among poll workers. According to the city official, a number of election boards felt they couldn’t swear in workers without a Bible, causing problems on election day.

The compromise was to make Bibles optional but include the instructions about putting them away.

Given that training is optional for people working the polls and the commission does not hire or fire them, it’s unlikely the folks who use their positions to represent their religions are going to stop.

One possible solution? Have more Philadelphians who are committed to the separation of church and state get involved on election day and run for the election board themselves.


  • Timaree Schmit Headshot

    Timaree Schmit is basically an episode of Adam Ruins Everything, but in the shape of a person. She has a PhD in Human Sexuality Education and years of experience in community organizing, performance art, and finding the extra weird pockets of Philly.

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