Gay rights activists question why JoCo polling place was moved to Catholic church

A Johnson County polling place was unexpectedly moved to a Roman Catholic church, and some elected officials, candidates and gay rights activists said alarm bells were set off.

In November, voters in Roeland Park’s 2nd Ward will cast ballots at St. Agnes Catholic Parish, a shift after years of turning out to vote at Horizon Academy, a private school serving students with learning disabilities.

County elections officials said the relocation was routine, adding that the former site had heating and electrical issues. Churches often serve as polling locations.

But many fear the move to St. Agnes creates a conflict, citing the church’s stance against homosexuality. One candidate, Leonard Tocco, is a parishioner at the church, and his wife is a teacher at the parish school. His opponent, Benjamin Dickens, is openly gay.

“I don’t have a problem with it being a Catholic church … but when you move it to a church that one of the candidates attends, and when the church has a history of being anti-LGBT, the optics themselves are eyebrow-raising,” said state Rep. Brandon Woodard, a Democrat from Lenexa and one of the first openly gay legislators in Kansas. “Do I think the election office did this maliciously? No. But I would hope they would consider the optics of this.”

Tocco, a lifelong resident of Roeland Park, said he’s concerned the sudden change in polling location will confuse voters and result in fewer people casting ballots. But he doesn’t feel his membership with the church should be an issue.

“I don’t have any decision in where the Johnson County Election Office puts the polling place. That wasn’t my choice. It wasn’t my decision,” Tocco said. “It’s been nice voting where we have in the past.”

Gay rights activists worry about the church’s history. In 2006 the church did not renew its music director’s contract because he refused demands to pledge celibacy, proclaim homosexuality a disorder and quit conducting the Heartland Men’s Chorus.

Some critics point to the city’s prolonged debate five years ago before passing a law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. A main sticking point for those against the ordinance was that they worried it would prevent St. Agnes from holding its annual fish fry fundraiser. The city changed the proposal to clarify that religious institutions are exempt.

Roeland Park City Councilwoman Jennifer Hill, who serves in the 2nd Ward but is not up for reelection this year, said she’s hearing concerns from voters.

“Many residents are upset about the change in location because they are uncomfortable voting at the church because they have interpreted the church to have spoken against the Roeland Park nondiscrimination ordinance in 2014,” Hill said. “The last thing we want is to have this turn into an us-versus-them situation. St. Agnes is a part of our Roeland Park community and we wish to keep it that way. We simply wish to keep our voting location where it has been for the past 20-plus years, which is in Ward 2.”

St. Agnes is in Ward 4 and had already served as a polling place there.

“In regards to our site being a polling site on election day, St. Agnes has always welcomed the JoCo election board and all JoCo voters for a number of years now,” said St. Agnes spokesman Michael Gomez. “We will continue to do so when and if asked again in the future.”

Dickens, who has lived in Roeland Park for six years and is running for City Council for the first time, said while the move to St. Agnes does seem “off,” he is mostly upset because it was unexpected. Voters cast ballots in the primary election last month at the old location, and he wasn’t aware the venue had changed until he received an election office postcard in the mail.

“In a small election like this, because Roeland Park is not a big place, voter turnout is everything. It’s already hard to get people out to a polling place,” Dickens said. “Since I started canvassing, I’ve been knocking on doors and telling people to go where we’ve always voted. Now I fear for families who might show up at the wrong place.”

Both candidates said they’ll now work to inform voters of the accurate polling location.

The Johnson County Election Office has relocated five polling places for the November general election, said spokeswoman Lori Sand. She added that the county is moving away from using schools as polling locations for security reasons.

The former polling location for Ward 2 in Roeland Park, Horizon Academy, is on the north campus owned by Bishop Miege High School, part of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. But Horizon Academy operates independently.

“We routinely receive feedback from voters and election workers on the conditions of polling places after elections,” Sand said. “For Bishop Miege North Campus, we received comments about the heating and cooling, as well as the lack of enough electrical outlets to meet our needs. We appreciate the donation of space, however, we were able to provide another polling place for this ward that better met the needs of our office and the voters.”

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Sarah Ritter covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. Formerly a reporter for the Quad-City Times, Sarah is a graduate of Augustana College.