The ACLU Foundation of Northern California recently filed a lawsuit against an election official who removed a church as a polling site because of its visible support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
The court document alleges that Fresno County Registrar Brandi Orth unlawfully changed the voting location for last November’s election, violating the free speech rights of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno.
According to a spokesman for Fresno County, voters had complained about signage on the church’s property which read, “Black Lives Matter.” Phone calls to election authorities indicated that the placards might discourage people from showing up to vote.
“The county asked us to cover the banners for Election Day on Nov. 6,” wrote Rev. Tim Kutzmark in a letter to his congregation. “We informed the county that our banners were non-partisan/non-political and were a theological and civil rights statement, so we would not cover them.”
The lawsuit says the signs were approximately 200 feet from the church’s building. California electioneering laws require signs related to a candidate or referendum be at least 100 feet away from a polling place; however, the regulations do not prohibit all political statements. Orth told the Fresno Bee that “providing voters with polling locations that are free from public displays of political and/or issue advocacy is a priority of the county.”
Black Lives Matter activists in California have evolved beyond traditional street protests in recent years. The organization has co-sponsored statewide criminal justice reform bills, and its chief strategist is currently leading a campaign for an upcoming ballot initiative in Los Angeles County. Lead organizers across the state have repeatedly called for the abolition of policing, prisons, and capitalism, and often promote legislation and political contestants seeking to dismantle those institutions.
Kutzmark said he met with Orth in January in an attempt to resolve the banner issue and reinstate his church as a polling location for future elections. After what he described as “a series of refusals” by the county, the ACLU became involved and the lawsuit was filed last week.
Election officials issued a statement that accused the ACLU of mischaracterizing the controversy, adding: “While the County respects the church’s right to free speech, particularly concerning such a delicate matter as racial justice in our county, when the church refused any accommodation to the voters who were concerned with the perceived political nature of the sign, the County Clerk/Registrar of Voters determined that another polling place for the precinct would be in the overall best interests of the electorate.”
“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.”
The church, which describes its parish as “a liberal faith community,” is an affiliate of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) — the central organization for the Unitarian Universalist religious movement in the United States.
UUA is the fiscal sponsor of an organizing collective inspired by Black Lives Matter called Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU). Its executive director is Lena K. Gardner, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter’s Minneapolis chapter. The group urged Unitarian Universalist congregations throughout the country to display Black Lives Matter banners at their churches to show visible support for the movement.
Rev. Kutzmark said the church’s contentious banners have been on display since August 2017, when a 32-year-old woman was killed after violence erupted at a rally involving white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia. He claimed the county’s decision to remove his church as a polling place is an example of institutional racism.
“At a time when we are facing voter suppression across the country, I’m hoping that no other polling place will ever be disqualified for affirming the worth and dignity of black people and other people of color,” Kutzmark told the Fresno Bee. “We also want the court to state clearly that the actions taken against the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno were illegal, unconstitutional and violated our right to free speech.”
Court records indicate that a scheduling conference will take place on September 17, 2019.
Follow Jeffrey Cawood on Twitter @JeffreyCawood.