Fresno church removed as polling place after complaints about Black Lives Matter banners

A church in northeast Fresno was removed as a polling place after County Clerk/Registrar of Voters Brandi Orth received complaints from voters about Black Lives Matter banners on the property.

The large elevated signs face the street outside the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno.

“The county asked us to cover the banners for Election Day on Nov. 6,” the Rev. Tim Kutzmark wrote 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.”

Election law and Fresno County

Orth said that “providing voters with polling locations that are free from public displays of political and/or issue advocacy is a priority of the county.”

California electioneering laws require that campaign material related to a candidate or ballot measure are at least 100 feet from a polling site. Kutzmark said his church’s Black Lives Matter signs are 150 feet from their building, near the street.

The law does not prohibit all political statements.

In a question and answer page of California’s Voting Law Compliance Handbook, one person asked, “A lady working at my polling place last Election Day was wearing a T-shirt that said ‘Down with Liberals’ on it. Can she wear that?”

“Yes. It is not considered electioneering because the T-shirt doesn’t actually advocate voting for or against a particular candidate or measure,” the response reads. “If the shirt had a statement for or against something or someone on the ballot, it would not be allowed within 100 feet of the polls. If the elections official is aware of the situation, he or she will likely request that the woman cover it up or change into something that does not cause the slightest appearance of partisanship.”

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Jordan Scott, spokesman for the Fresno County Administrative Office, said the Unitarian church “has not violated any election policies and we have no concerns with their views or display” but the county seeks polling locations “that encourage voters to come to the polls and feel comfortable casting their votes on issues.”

“The calls received from voters in the area indicated that the location may risk discouraging voters from turning up,” Scott said, “so we determined it was best to move the polling place to another location that had been used previously.”

CrossCity Christian Church, located about a mile north of Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno’s location, is the new polling place in that area.

“We have utilized the CrossCity Church since 2000, and continue to use them,” Scott said. “We only used the Unitarian Church for the November 2016 and June 2018 elections.”

Reactions to the change of venue

The removal of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno as a polling place because of its Black Lives Matter signs has been especially hurtful to many African Americans in Fresno.

“I was really kind of shocked to hear that there’s a lot of different variations of what people believe ‘Black Lives Matter’ means,” said the Rev. B.T. Lewis II of Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church in southwest Fresno. “I think the real meaning behind that phrase is exactly literally what it states and not a whole lot more. In any circumstance and in any situation, the lives of African Americans should matter as much as anyone else’s, and I think it’s just that simple.”

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Rev. Tim Kutzmark beside Black Lives Matter signs outside the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno. Special to The Bee

Kutzmark said his church first hung the Black Lives Matter sign in August 2017, “immediately after the Charlottesville hate-filled racist rally and torch light parade.” The Fresno signs were vandalized several times, prompting them to be raised on tall poles above a person’s reach.

Kutzmark said Orth told him her decision to remove his church as a polling place was based on the “threat of escalation” and her desire to ensure a “neutral and safe polling place.”

Lewis said Orth should not have based her decision on complaints about the signs.

“I think this is unfair; I think it’s egregious,” Lewis said. “I think it is inappropriate for a few people to be able to call and just say, ‘We want them to remove it or we will cause you trouble,’ and then to have our county clerk’s office cave into that kind of intimidation.”

Lewis also disagrees with Orth’s argument that polling locations should be free from “issue advocacy.”

“Every church, every place, stands on some group of principles, whether you agree with them of not,” Lewis said. “Every polling place we have has some kind of bylaws, some kind of belief system. Other churches have crosses. Different religions have different demonstrations of what they believe.”

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Kutzmark said something similar in his conversation with Orth.

“Near the end of the call, I asked her (Orth) if a church had a sign that said, ‘He Is Risen,’ and she got complaints because it made some people uncomfortable, would she have requested the church cover up the signs?” Kutzmark said. “She replied, ‘This is a controversial topic.’ I agreed with her, and said, ‘That is one thing we both can agree on.’ ”

Kutzmark said they had a “pleasant and polite” conversation and he isn’t trying to make her a “villain.”

“The sad part of this story,” he said, “is that banners that simply affirmed the worth and dignity of black people made white people uncomfortable. … As if their discomfort for 10 minutes on one day is more important than the discomfort that people of color live with every minute and every day of their lives in a white primacy culture.”

The Rev. D.J. Criner of Saint Rest Baptist Church in southwest Fresno thinks about how black people in many places throughout the country have had to navigate around Confederate flags to reach polling places for more than a century.

The complaints about the Black Lives Matter signs in Fresno were made during the June primary. At that time, Kutzmark said a polling worker also asked his church to move a sign welcoming Muslims and refugees, printed by 1humanfamily.org, the Interfaith Council for Peace & Justice.

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The Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno said it was also asked to move this sign, welcoming refugee and Muslim neighbors, during the June primary election. Special to The Bee

The Rev. Rod Richards said the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Luis Obispo County, also a polling place, was approached by an official a couple years ago about moving its Black Lives Matter sign, hanging on the side of their church.

He said he responded much like Kutzmark did, and the church was allowed to remain a polling place.

“It’s not a partisan issue but a theological position,” Richards said, “and a statement for civil rights and keeping with our principles about the inherent worth and dignity of all people.”

Kutzmark hopes Orth will reinstate the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno as a polling site in the future. The church was among 268 polling places throughout Fresno County.

Orth agreed to meet with a Faith in Fresno Clergy Caucus after the election.

“My office is looking forward to that meeting,” Orth said.

Kutzmark said he is especially concerned about his church being removed as a polling place “in these tense times.”

“We’ve seen the Supreme Court strike down the heart of the Voting Rights Act,” he said, “and are hearing many reports of voter suppression impacting communities of color.”

Criner said Orth’s decision “hurts – it hurts so much.”

“There’s a sign that the life and voices of African Americans matter, and you want to take it down? … That’s borderline of being racist,” Criner said, “and standing against the life of an African American.”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge