A Black Lives Matter banner outside the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno, Calif. Image via ACLU

California church sues after removal as polling place over Black Lives Matter banners

(RNS) — A California church is suing a county election official for removing its polling place designation after the church put up banners supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno served as a polling place in the November 2016 national election and California's June 2018 primary round. But when a local voter complained about the church’s banners, Fresno County Clerk and Registrar of Voters Brandi Orth removed the church from the list of polling places for the November 2018 general election.

“With Fresno County’s decision to place priority on one written complaint by an ill-informed white person — and to break the law by removing the church as a polling place — the county chose to support the denigration of black lives and support the societal prioritization of white lives,” the church’s minister, the Rev. Tim Kutzmark, told Religion News Service.

“This is wrong, it is a violation of our First Amendment rights, and it is an assault on the religious values of Unitarian Universalism,” said Kutzmark, whose congregation of about 450 members is in a wealthy, mostly white area of Fresno.

After the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, the church added two yellow banners with the words “Black Lives Matter” to its property — at least 200 feet away from the entrance to the polling station. California anti-electioneering laws do not allow signs endorsing candidates or measures within 100 feet of a polling location.

"The Church's Black Lives Matter banners were not electioneering," reads the church's filing, which was prepared by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California on behalf of the church. "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."

Kutzmark said the approximately 8-foot-long banners, which have been vandalized several times, were meant as a nonpartisan statement of theology and civil rights as part of Unitarian Universalism’s national Side With Love campaign.

The church's lawsuit claims that Orth asked the church leadership to remove or cover the banners for Election Day after she got a complaint from a resident in August 2018 that asked “why it was okay to have a Black Lives Matter (a known domestic terrorist group) sign in front of our polling place.”

Black Lives Matter is a social activism movement that campaigns against systemic racism toward black people, in particular the disproportionate killings of black citizens by police. It is not a terrorist group, nor has the U.S. designated it as such.

“America does not place the same value on black lives as it does on white lives,” Kutzmark said. “It never has. This is immoral. The church displays our Black Lives Matter banners ... to testify to the worth and dignity of black people and other people of color.”

According to the lawsuit, county officials noted in internal emails that the banners were beyond the 100-foot protection zone and acknowledged that the Black Lives Matter slogan was not “campaigning but does support a controversial movement.”

Still, when the church refused to remove its banners, Orth removed it from the list of polling places open during the upcoming general election.

That was a violation of the church leaders’ right to free speech, states the lawsuit, and an act of discrimination against the church by disqualifying it as a polling place “because it displayed a message related to racial justice.” The church said it reached out to the county several times before filing the lawsuit.

The Fresno County counsel did not respond to a media request for comment.

“The records show that (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. “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 moved the polling place a mile north to CrossCity Christian Church for the November 2018 elections. The lawsuit claims that some voters complained about “controversial religious symbols and slogans” at the second location, too, but that Orth continued to use it as a polling place in November 2018 and again in a March 2019 special election.

The lawsuit calls for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno to be reinstated as a polling place with no requirement to remove its banners.

In January, the church invited Orth to a meeting of the Faith in Fresno Clergy Caucus, an interfaith group of local clergy. There, according to the lawsuit, Orth said she moved the polling place because she wanted to ensure a “safe and neutral” polling place. She reportedly would not commit to reinstating the UUC as a polling place if it did not remove its banners.

Two months later, during the March special election, voters could not cast their ballots at the UUC.

The Rev. B.T. Lewis II, a caucus member and pastor at Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church, said the decision showed the systemic racism prevalent in Fresno, which a study last year found to be America’s 10th worst city for black people in terms of black population, median income, unemployment, home ownership and other metrics.

“The registrar’s actions were inherent to a community that repeatedly expresses disdain for African Americans and we want to support Universalist Unitarian Church in their quest for justice,” Lewis said in a statement.

According to court records, a scheduling conference on the lawsuit will take place Sept. 17.