ACLU sues Fresno County Clerk on behalf of local church

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The controversy over a “Black Lives Matter” banner outside a Fresno church continues.

On Monday, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Fresno County Clerk on behalf of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno.

We reached out to the County of Fresno Administrative Office. Officials say they just learned about this lawsuit and did not want to comment on the matter just yet.

But the church tells us they believe the Registrar violated their freedom of speech, and they do not want it to happen to anyone else.

If you drive up or down Alluvial Avenue, near Chestnut and Willow, you might notice this “Black Lives Matter” sign outside the church.

“We’re in a predominantly white section of town and this sign is starling,” says Rev. Tim Kutzmark, pastor of Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno.

What may be startling to some, is simply freedom of expression to Kutzmark. He says the banner is part of the church’s beliefs.

“Some people say the sign should say all lives matter, well the truth in this country right now, all lives don’t matter as much as white lives and until that changes we’re going to keep flying the banners,” Kutzmark expressed.

The banner has caused some issues, vandalized at times. Most recently, Kutzmark says they were discriminated against by the Fresno County Clerk/Elections Office. 

He says they were supposed to be a polling location during the November 2018 Election. Kutzmark says when asked to cover up or remove the banner, he says they refused.

“We stood by our religious principles and because of that we were disqualified, we were taken away as a polling place, they moved it to another church,” Kutzmark explained.

Now 7 months later, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, they filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court against the Fresno County Clerk/Elections Office.

“That action violates the constitution and the churches First Amendment right to Free Speech,” says Mollie Lee, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Northern California.

State law says there are to be no signs endorsing candidates or measures within 100 feet of a polling location.

The ACLU says the banner was neither.

“We really want to send a message to government officials in Fresno that this kind of censorship is against the law,” says Lee.

The ACLU says they are seeking a court order that the registrar make the church a polling place again and that the church be able to leave the banner in place. 

Fresno county released the following statement – 

“Fresno County has not yet been served with the lawsuit and we have had only a cursory opportunity to review the complaint. We are disappointed in the ACLU’s decision to pursue legal action in this matter and note that 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. 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.

It is the County Clerk/Registrar of Voters’ duty to provide polling places that offer a political content-neutral venue for all voters to cast their ballots. The County Clerk/Registrar of Voters’ Office received several complaints regarding the prominently placed sign at the entrance to the Plaintiff, Unitarian Universalist Church, grounds that contained the polling location immediately prior to and following the June 2018 primary election. 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. This decision was communicated to the Plaintiff church in September of 2018 following an attempt by the Elections Office to gain some compromise from the Plaintiff church. 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. The polling location utilized for the November 2018 election was another church which had previously served as the polling location for that precinct for many years prior to 2017 without any complaints. Complaints were received about the polling location at the other church only after the Plaintiff commenced a media blitz shortly before the November 6, 2018 election regarding the issue of their sign. But the vast majority were part of the Plaintiff’s media and public pressure campaign and came from Plaintiff’s members and supporters. These complaints were received a few days before and after the November 6, 2018 election date. Even if any of the complaints raised valid points, the election had already been noticed and ballots printed and delivered to voters identifying the polling site for the November 6, 2018 election, so no change of location was possible.

Nevertheless, the County Clerk/Registrar of Voters is taking all public complaints and comments into consideration as the Elections Office makes decisions concerning the upcoming transition to regional vote centers under the Voter’s Choice Act. This has been a public process and the County Clerk/Registrar of Voters’ Office has held public meetings which will continue to gather public input on this planning process.

The goal of the County Clerk/Election Official is to provide convenient, neutral and accessible voting centers for all the voters of Fresno County.

The next public meeting will be held at 4:00 p.m. on June 19, 2019 at the Fresno County Elections Training Facility, 4525 E. Hamilton Avenue, Fresno. The agenda for the meeting is located on the County Clerk/Election Official webpage at Fresno County

Thank you  

Sincerely,

Jordan Scott | Public Information Officer Fresno County

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