Religious and cultural traditions collide in odd ways.
• Is it right to tell election poll workers, assigned to Mormon church meeting houses, to not bring coffee, sodas or anything else caffeinated to refresh themselves during their long day tending to voters?
• Should good Catholics robustly celebrate on St. Patrick’s Day this year, given that it falls during Holy Week, something that hasn’t occurred since 1940?
First, let’s look at the polling place duties and sipping Maxwell House in the meeting house.
Longtime Tempe poll worker Mary Ann Hemmingson has signed up to work the polls for the March 11 election. She’ll spend her 14- or 15-hour day in a church, but no longer one that belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I never sign up to work at a Mormon church because the board workers there are not allowed to have any caffeine on the premises,” she said. “That means no coffee in the morning and no Diet Coke in the afternoon. ... You don’t want to see what I look like without my daily dose of caffeine. It’s not a pretty picture.”
“The Word of Wisdom” portion of the Doctrine and Covenants, put forth in 1833 by church founder and prophet Joseph Smith, says that “hot drinks are not for the body or belly.” Add to that what H. Burke Peterson, first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, said in 1975: “We know that cola drinks contain the drug caffeine. We know caffeine is not wholesome nor prudent for the use of our bodies. It is only sound judgment to conclude that cola drinks and any others that contain caffeine or other harmful ingredients should not be used.”
Advising followers to restrict what they take into their bodies is one thing, but applying that mandate to those people who perform a public job inside their buildings in a one-day stint seems to be taking things too far.
Maricopa County “makes sure that their poll workers do not bring in any coffee or soda pop,” Hemmingson said. “They tell board workers that if they need to have some, keep it in their cars and go take sips.” So that means squeezing in a quick break, back at the car, not unlike some teen sneaking out of the school dance for a beer in a buddy’s car before going back in.
Hemmingson asks: “What do we do if a voter walks in with a can of pop or a container from Starbucks? Are we supposed to ask them to leave?”
Hemmingson said that seems in direct conflict with the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which, among other things, calls for accommodating voters’ needs. But Yvonne Reed, a public information officer for the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office, said the ban on beverages that contain caffeine is a requirement that the Mormon church has set for use of its spaces. “We observe whatever the requirements may be of any denomination,” she said. “If that is something they don’t want done there, we are so very happy to have them as with any other facility as a polling place.”
The ban on caffeine is no different than forbidding smoking, she said. Whether it is a church, synagogue or mosque, “we abide with their rules.” Reed said occasionally there are public requests to cover up crosses or remove religious materials from walls or bulletin boards of churches, but the choice is to honor the host. Some, she said, may be offended, as occurred in 2004, when people voted in military armories and President Bush’s photo was on the wall at the same time he was on the ballot.
“We are not going to ask them to take it down or cover it up because it is a fixture — a permanent fixture of their facilities,” Reed said.
Election workers, she underscored, can choose where they are willing to go. If they can’t abide by the no-caffeine rule, “we will see if they can work somewhere else.” It hasn’t been an issue, Reed said. “Everybody understands.”
“We try to keep them in their precinct, so if they happen to be a Latter-day Saint and they go there, it is all the more reason that we would be very happy to use them because they know the facilities,” she said.
Now to Catholics and St. Patrick’s Day.
Easter will be March 23. It’s very early this year. The season of Lent and its final week, or Holy Week, begins with Palm Sunday on March 16. But the next day is St. Patrick’s Day. The calendar poses special problems for the Roman Catholic Church. This year, there won’t be a Feast of St. Patrick’s, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has determined. Liturgical rules specify that no Mass in honor of that saint can be celebrated on March 17 because it falls during Holy Week.
The schedule also affects the less celebrated St. Joseph’s Day that would have been March 19. It has been moved this year to March 15 (not in Holy Week) and it will still be celebrated, unlike St. Patrick’s Day.
“St. Joseph is a ‘solemnity,’ which is a higher rank than a memorial, which is the designation of St. Patrick,” said Jim Dwyer, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix.
“There is a difference between the cultural celebration of St. Patrick’s and the liturgical celebration of commemorating St. Patrick,” Dwyer said. “What the diocese is saying is that, this year, St. Patrick will not be commemorated liturgically since weekdays of Holy Week take precedence over memorials.”
At 7 p.m. on St. Patrick’s Day, Bishop Thomas Olmsted will officiate at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix, where he will bless the oil to be used by all diocesan parishes for baptisms, confirmations, ordinations and anointing of the sick this year. It is called the Chrism Mass, and all parishes are expected to have representatives on hand to receive its oils.
So what’s a good Catholic Irishman or Irishman-for-a-day to do with St. Patrick’s Day?
John Garcia, Arizona spokesman for the Knights of Columbus, urges self-restraint in marking the traditional holiday. “Catholics everywhere, Knights included, are being asked to consider the solemnity of the week and what it represents — and to use good judgment in anything that they may do to celebrate what some look at as a national holiday,” he said.
Given that St. Patrick’s Day falls on Holy Week and is a workday, he suggested the faithful do their partying on the weekend leading up to Holy Week.
Said Dwyer, “The church has no official control over what individuals decide to do culturally, but as far as I know, most people across the country who are scheduling parades and celebrations are making efforts to ensure that they take place before Holy Week.”
At R.T. O’Sullivan’s bar, 1010 W. Southern Ave., Mesa, the manager predicted little impact from the Holy Week snag.
“It is not really going to change anything for us,” Chris Becker said. “We cater to such a wide audience and base of people.” He said he respects what the Catholic Church “feels they need to do. Our opinion is most people are going to do what they will, in any case.” Typically, 5,000 show up each St. Patrick’s Day for the all-day, fenced-in party.
St. Patrick’s Day won’t fall again on Holy Week until 2160.