A church in Fresno, California, says it was removed as a polling place over “Black Lives Matter” banners displayed on its property. Now it’s taking the county to court over it.
The ACLU Foundation of Northern California filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno this week, accusing Fresno County Clerk and Registrar of Voters Brandi Orth and her office of violating the church’s free speech rights.
The church was to have served as a voting location in the November 2018 elections but was stripped of the designation following a complaint over the Black Lives Matter banners. Orth reportedly ordered the polling site moved to another church, claiming the banners prevented Unitarian Universalist from being a “safe and neutral” polling place.
“The records show that she took this illegal, retaliatory action based on one person’s racist complaints,” said Mollie Lee, senior attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Northern California. “Local registrars are at the front lines of democracy [and] have a critical responsibility in conducting elections fairly.
“It’s important for them to fulfill that responsibility in a way that is not influenced by implicit or explicit bias,” she added.
Under California law, materials related to a candidate or a campaign must be at least 100 feet from a designated polling site. The ACLU’s filing argues that banners supporting the social justice movement are 200 feet from the church building and weren’t electioneering because “they didn’t advocate for or against any candidate or measure on the ballot.”
The complaint notes that the church served as a polling site in June 2018, where voter turnout there was 16.46 percent — well above the overall county average of 10.93 percent.
Fresno representatives asked the church to cover up or remove the banners on Election Day after Orth’s office received a complaint from a resident who described BLM as a “known domestic terror group,” the complaint alleges.
Church officials refused, after which Orth moved the neighborhood polling site one mile north to CrossCity Christian Church.
“The church will not take the ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign down,” Orth allegedly wrote in a memo, according the suit. “Rossy – please don’t use this location
for November. Put these voters somewhere else, nearby. Thanks.”
Unitarian Universalist was informed of the change Sept. 5, 2018.
Leaders of the house of worship said they erected the banners after the white nationalist-led “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 to express their belief in “the inherent dignity and worth of every person.” They’ve been up since then.
“We refused to cover our banners because they are a theological, civil rights statement and we were practicing our First Amendment right to free speech,” said the Rev. Tim Kutzmark, who heads the church. “The sad part is that banners that simply affirmed the worth and dignity of black people made someone uncomfortable.”
Their lawsuit is seeking an order for the church’s polling place designation to be restored, without a precondition that their BLM signs be taken down. According to the ACLU, the next election for which the church could serve as a voting site would be the California primaries in March 2020.
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