The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a church that was stripped of its status as a designated polling location for displaying Black Lives Matter (BLM) banners on the church’s property.
The Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno in Fresno, California filed a complaint with the ACLU on June 10. The lawsuit states that Fresno County Clerk and Registrar of Voters Brandi Orth violated the first amendment because of the BLM banners on church property.
The complaint states that the church had served as a polling place in the community for the November 2016 and for the June 2018 elections without any problems. It was also supposed to serve as a polling place for the November 2018 elections.
“For the Church, being a polling place is a badge of honor and a way of serving the community. Being a polling place is also a way that the Church fulfills the fifth principle of Unitarian Universalism, which states ‘we affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large,’” the complaint states.
The church displayed two yellow banners reading “Black Lives Matter” in August 2017 and, as such, the banners were on display during the June 2018 election. The banners stood 200 feet away from the polling place inside the church building and were near the side of the road. The lawsuit states that California anti-electioneering laws bans signs endorsing candidates or measure “within 100 feet of a polling place.”
“The Church’s Black Lives Matter banners were not electioneering,” the complaint states. “They did not advocate for or against any candidate or measure on the ballot, and they were displayed more than 100 feet from the polling place at the Church.”
In August 2018, the church received a complaint from a voter that asked “why it was okay to have a Black Lives Matter (a known domestic terrorist group) sign in front of our polling place,” according to the lawsuit. The church was asked to take down or cover the signs, but it refused and was told on September 5, 2018, that it would not longer be a polling station.
“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 lawsuit filed by the organization states. “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.”
Census data found that Fresno County is 76.9 percent white, 53.2 percent Latino or Hispanic, and 5.8 percent Black or African American.
Leaders of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno want the church to be reinstated as a polling place and do not want the Black Lives Matter banners to be removed, according to the lawsuit.
In a statement to The North Star, a spokesperson from Fresno County said the county has not been served with the lawsuit yet.
“We are disappointed in the ACLU’s decision to pursue legal action in this matter and note that many of the allegations in the complaint and the ACLU’s press release appear to mischaracterize events or ignore the sequence of events as they actually occurred,” the statement read.
The statement from the county stated that the County Clerk/Registrar of Voters’ Office had received several complaints about the Black Lives Matter signs on the church property following the June 2018 election. The county stated the “politically charged nature of the sign” and “its effect on potential voters” was the reason the church was dropped as a polling site.
“While the County respects the church’s right to free speech, particularly concerning such a delicate matter as racial justice in our country, 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 statement read. “This decision was communicated to the Plaintiff church in September of 2018 following an attempt by the Elections Office to gain some compromise from the Plaintiff church.”
The statement said that the county clerk and registrar of voters office will continue to take public complaints and comments into consideration as the Elections Office makes decisions about regional polling centers. The next public meeting will be held on June 19 at 4 pm at the Fresno County Elections Training Facility.
About the Author
Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in the various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.