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A watchdog group concerned about separation of church and state has sent a letter to 14 counties statewide, including Salt Lake County, warning them they have violated Utah laws and the U.S. Constitution.

The Society of Separationists Inc. claims the counties illegally used churches as polling places during the 1988 general election."The motivation behind our concern is a desire to keep elections free from bias," Chris Allen, director of the society, said. "We are interceding on behalf of every voter who has ever felt his or her conscience was violated by having to vote in a church."

The group conducted a statewide census this year of Utah voting places on a county-by-county basis which revealed 70 of the 1,021 buildings used in the 1988 election were churches.

Salt Lake County used 35 churches for voting in the `88 election and will use 40 in this year's election, according to Merrilea Jones, county director of elections.

"There are 702 voting districts in the county, and we don't have 702 public buildings," she said. "Using churches is the only alternative we have."

Jones said a lot of voters would be unhappy if the county stopped using churches as polling places.

"We get a lot of complaints already because people have to travel far to vote," she said. Those casting their ballots would have to travel even farther if churches were eliminated as polling places, she said.

The Society of Separationists, which has been active in Utah for 11 years, contends the 14 counties are violating the First and 14thAmendments of the U.S. Constitution as well as the Utah State Constitution and the state code election laws - Title 20.

The letter, sent to chairmen of the county commissions for those counties, refers specifically to Article 1 of the state Constitution which says: "The rights of conscience shall never be infringed . . . There shall be no union of church and state, nor shall any church dominate the state or interfere with its functions. No public money shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise of instruction, or for the support of any ecclesiastical establishment."

By paying churches to use space for voting purposes, the state "is supporting those churches and subsidizing their teachings with public money," a spokesman for the group said.

However, Jones said the county is simply renting space and in no way supports teachings of the churches they use as polling places.