Black Lives Matter banner controversy sparks lawsuit against Fresno County

The ACLU Foundation of Northern California is suing Fresno County Registrar Brandi Orth for allegedly “illegally” removing Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno as a polling site in the November election over Black Lives Matter banners.

The Bee first brought the issue to light in November.

In a news release Monday, the ACLU said the only reason for removing the Fresno church as a polling place was because Unitarian Universalist Church had refused to cover up the banners on its premise. The lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Fresno on Monday, argues that Orth violated the church’s right to free speech.

A scheduling conference is set for Sept. 17, according to court records.

“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,” Rev. Tim Kutzmark at the Unitarian Universalist Church told The 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.”

Orth didn’t respond to a request for comment. A Fresno County spokesman said he wasn’t able to comment as they had only been notified of the lawsuit Monday afternoon and hadn’t reviewed it yet.

Kutzmark said a face-to-face meeting with Orth was requested before and after the election. The meeting didn’t take place until Jan. 16.

“The clear message ... was that this was not important to the office if they made us wait for two months to talk about it,” Kutzmark said.

Several requests were made to Orth to try to resolve the issue during the January meeting and reinstate the church as a polling place to no avail, Kutzmark said.

“It was only after a series of refusals that the ACLU became involved,” he said, adding there was no other recourse.

The ACLU further alleges Orth claimed the banners prevented the church from being a “safe and neutral” voting site for the November election, according to the release.

“The records show that she took this illegal, retaliatory action based on one person’s racist complaints,” Mollie Lee, a senior attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, said in the news release. “Local registrars are at the front lines of democracy and have a critical responsibility in conducting elections fairly. It is important for them to fulfill that responsibility in a way that is not influenced by implicit or explicit bias.”

Orth had received complaints about the banners.

“I’m saddened and concerned that the comfort level of one white resident who felt uncomfortable with these signs, was given priority over the rights of black people to vote at a polling place that recognizes their worth and dignity,” Kutzmark said.

The California Elections Code requires campaign and candidate materials be at least 100-feet away from a polling site. The distance is measured from the room where voters sign the roster and cast ballots, according to the lawsuit.

The Black Lives Matter banners are about 200 feet away from the church building and about 225 feet from the room where voters cast their ballot, the lawsuit says.

The ACLU also says the banners weren’t advocating for a particular candidate or issue on the ballot. The lawsuit seeks an order that would prevent Orth from removing the church as a polling site based on the banners.

Prior to the June 2018 election, the church also had two small signs within 100 feet from the polling entrance. The signs stated “One Human Family: We support refugees and our Muslims neighbors,” according to the lawsuit. At the time, a polling worker asked the church to move the signs away from the polling entrance, the lawsuit says.

The church complied and moved the signs out to the front of the sidewalk, more than 100 feet away from the polling entrance.

“During the June 2018 election, there were no problems at the polling place located at the Church,” the lawsuit reads.

Kutzmark said this is a case of institutionalized racism in Fresno County.

“This isn’t just an isolated poor decision,” he said.

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