The Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno filed a lawsuit on Monday against the Fresno County clerk for removing the church as a polling site in response to the “Black Lives Matter” banners hung on its property.
The church, filing with the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, is suing the Fresno County Clerk and Registrar of Voters, Brandi Orth, for “violating the Church’s First Amendment rights.”
“These banners express a view on a matter of serious public concern and reflect the Church’s belief in the inherent dignity and worth of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; and respect for the interdependent web of existence,” the suit reads. “They also communicate the Church’s belief that society does not value Black lives as much as it values white lives and the Church’s desire to change this.”
Mollie Lee, one of the ACLU attorneys working with the church’s suit, told TPM that Orth’s “unprecedented” decision was “profoundly hurtful and offensive.”
“Registrars are at the front lines of democracy, and they have a critical responsibility in ensuring that elections are conducted fairly,” Lee said. “It’s important that they fulfill that responsibility in a way that’s not influenced by implicit or explicit bias.”
The church says in the suit that it’s been displaying the banners since August 2017 while keeping the signs at a distance of over 100 feet from the polling place, as California’s anti-electioneering law requires. The church served as a polling site in the November 2016 and June 2018 elections “without incident,” per the complaint.
After a voter complained that the church was boosting a “known domestic terrorist group,” Orth allegedly asked the church to take down the banners on Election day, according to the lawsuit. When it refused to do so, Orth directed election staff to move voters to a different church to vote in the November 2018 midterm elections, and has refused to consider the Unitarian Universalist Church as a potential polling site for the 2020 elections.
The church is requesting an injunction from the court to require Orth to include it as a potential polling place without the condition that the banners be removed.
Minister Reverend Tim Kutzmark, the church’s leader, told TPM during a phone interview that Orth’s decision was “another example of systemic institutionalized racism that pervades the city of Fresno and Fresno County.”
“I think for me, the saddest part of the decision that was made is that the discomfort of one white person who sent an email was given priority over the rights for black people and other persons of color to vote in a place that was clearly safe and affirming of their identity,” Kutzmark said.
The Reverend noted that his congregation is located in North Fresno, a predominantly white area of the city, which he believes played a role in the backlash against the banners.
“If these banners had been at a polling place in South Fresno, the county wouldn’t have blinked,” he said.
In an official statement, a Fresno County office spokesman said it was unable to comment fully on the lawsuit but that it wanted to clarify “inaccurate statements that have been made in public so far.”
According to the spokesman, Jordan Scott, the office had received “several complaints” about the church’s banners, not just one.
“The decision was not made based on the specific content of the church’s sign but due to the politically charged nature of the sign, its effect on potential voters and the Plaintiff’s refusal to cover or remove the sign for a single election day,” Scott said.
This story has been updated to include Fresno County’s response to the lawsuit.