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Unitarian Universalist v. Orth (Free Speech)

Closed Case
Jun 23, 2020

The Unitarian Universalist Church in Fresno has displayed Black Lives Matter Banners on its property since the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017—part of Unitarian Universalism’s national Side With Love campaign

The banners were on display when Unitarian Universalist Church served as a polling place during the June 2018 elections. But prior to the November 2018 elections, Fresno County Registrar Brandi Orth received a complaint from a resident who called Black Lives Matter “a known domestic terrorist group” and pressed for the banners’ removal. Orth asked the church to cover up the signs or take them down for election day. When the church refused, the election official moved the polling place to another church, claiming that the Black Lives Matter Banners prevented Unitarian Universalist Church from being a “safe and neutral” polling place.

On June 10, 2019 the ACLU Foundation of Northern California filed a lawsuit against Fresno County's chief elections official for her illegal removal of the Unitarian Universalist Church poll. The suit, filed in Eastern District Court, argues that Orth, violated the church's right to Free Speech. The ACLU lawsuit sought an order that would prevent the registrar from disqualifying the church as a voting location because of Black Lives Matter signs on its property.

On June 23, 2019, the Unitarian Universalist Church and Fresno County settled the case, with Fresno County agreeing to designate the Unitarian Universalist Church as a voter ballot drop-box location for at least four years, including two presidential elections and the primaries in between. In addition, the Unitarian Universalist Church will be allowed to continue to display its signs affirming the worth and dignity of Black Lives during the elections.

The settlement came at the heels of weeks of nationwide protests following the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers, in which thousands demanded justice, called for change, and affirmed that Black Lives Matter. Since the Unitarian Universalist Church erected the banners in 2017, it has continuously declared that Black Lives Matter and will continue to do so every day, including on Election Day.

Finally, the settlement is a victory for Fresno County voters, particularly in a time when vote-by-mail is more crucial than ever due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as the additional ballot drop-box at the Unitarian Universalist Church will help ensure that voters don’t have to choose between their health and their right to vote during the November 2020 election.

Read More:

Settlement Press Release

ACLU Sues Fresno County Election Official for Removing Church Polling Place in First Amendment Dispute over Black Lives Matter Banner (June 10, 2019)

Case Developments