The Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno filed a federal lawsuit against Fresno County Clerk and Registrar of Voters Brandi Orth, accusing the elected county clerk of violating the church's First Amendment rights. The church filed the complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Foundation of Northern California.
“The records show that she [Orth] took this illegal, retaliatory action based on one person’s racist complaints,” said Mollie Lee, a senior attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, according to a Monday press 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.”
According to court documents obtained by the Washington Post, the church had displayed two yellow banners stating “Black Lives Matter” 200 feet away from the church building.
Before the 2018 midterm elections, a voter sent a complaint to Orth’s office asking “why it was okay to have a Black Lives Matter sign” in front of the polling place. The resident who made the complaint also referred to the Black Lives Matter movement as a “known domestic terrorist group.”
When the church’s minister, Reverend Tim Kutzmark, refused to remove the signs in September, the church lost its status as a polling place.
“We refused to cover our banners because they are a theological, civil rights statement and we were practicing our First Amendment right to free speech,” said Kutzmark, according to the ACLU press release. “The sad part is that banners that simply affirmed the worth and dignity of black people made someone uncomfortable. This statement does not say other lives don’t matter. It says all lives will matter when American society values black lives as much as it values white lives.”
According to California election laws, campaign-related materials cannot be displayed within 100 feet of a polling site. In this case, the Black Lives Matter banners were 200 feet away from the church property and were not advocating for a particular individual or voting issue.
“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.”