County defends decision to move polling place over church’s Black Lives Matter banners

Fresno County officials on Tuesday released a lengthy response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union over the county’s decision to remove the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno as a polling site — saying they did so after the church wouldn’t budge on displaying “Black Lives Matter” banners .

The ACLU Foundation of Northern California filed its lawsuit against Fresno County Registrar Brandi Orth in U.S. District Court in Fresno on Monday. The lawsuit claims Orth illegally removed the church as a polling location for the November election over banners with the words “Black Lives Matter” on the property.

In its statement, the county said it was disappointed with the decision of the ACLU to file a lawsuit over the matter. The county’s response also said the chain of events, as outlined in the ACLU lawsuit, were not entirely accurate.

“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 reads. “Unfortunately, it is the nature of litigation that the County will be unable to comment fully on these issues outside of the federal court proceeding. However, some clarification is necessary to counter the inaccurate statements that have been made in public so far.”

The county’s statement further states Orth had received complaints about the Black Lives Matter banners outside the church building.

“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 says.

The Unitarian Universalist Church was informed of that decision in September, after an attempt by the county to reach a compromise, according to the statement.

“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,” it says.

Mollie Lee, senior attorney for the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, said the ACLU stands by its complaint. “The church attempted to resolve this matter with the registrar before pursuing litigation,” she said via email. “We are disappointed that the county still does not recognize that it broke the law.”

The California Elections Code requires campaign and candidate materials be at least 100-feet away from the polling site. The lawsuit claims the Black Lives Matter banners at the church are about 225 feet away from the room where voters would cast their ballots.

The lawsuit also says the banners weren’t advocating for a particular candidate or issue on the ballot, and it seeks an order to prevent Orth from removing the church as polling place based on the banners.

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