COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | GEORGE HAWKINS

Boulder ACLU claims 'voter intimidation,' tries to shut down free speech

Sacred Heart of Mary is a Catholic church in Colorado’s Boulder County. It’s located a few miles southeast of downtown Boulder and has been there since at least 1872, the year the first church building was constructed. The land on which the church and associated buildings are located was purchased in 1860. There is little development immediately adjacent to the land, but the church itself is situated on a main thoroughfare and has served frequently as a voting precinct for general elections, most recently in 2012.

Other than a formal cemetery on the church’s property, satellite pictures show the nature of the land to be open and uncluttered. Depending on the direction from which you approach, you can see a prominent display of crosses that are not in the cemetery proper though they are on church property. The layout is intended to reflect the church’s position on abortion, according to church officials; a sign along the roadway makes that clear. It says 3,300 abortions are performed in the United States each day.

I’m not offering a discussion on abortion, though the number identified in this instance is noteworthy. If the sign is correct, 1.2 million abortions are performed annually in the United States. That is an astounding number. Various studies say that count is smaller than in previous years, but a million abortions in the United States is a troubling statement about our society. So is the so-called reason the American Civil Liberties Union has objected to this display.

It is hard to tell from the photos just how close to the highway and front of the church these crosses are located. While the display is clearly visible to passersby, everyone involved agrees it is more than 100 feet from the space that was used for voting booths, the minimum legal distance between electioneering and a ballot casting location.

Three voters and the chair of the Boulder chapter of the ACLU complained to public officials about the church’s display, according to a report in a local Boulder County paper. I don’t know what the three voters said when they contacted the county clerk with their concerns, but the ACLU chair objected to the display because he thinks it could fall under Colorado’s laws against voter intimidation.

The display may be sobering. To suggest it may have intimidated voters is a reach.

Saying it might be intimidating did seem to intimidate the county clerk. She has announced that in the future the church will not be used as a voting location. The clerk has the authority to make that kind of decision, but I wonder if she chose this response more because of her own position on the abortion issue than any legal question.

As ugly as the statistic is, learning about it would not intimidate me. Maybe it was not intimidation so much as another way for the ACLU and three voters to cause a fuss.

How far should we go with this sort of thing? In this instance, had the church established this display on the back side of their property, far away from the entrance to the church, would it still be intimidating? Maybe putting a voting precinct in a church of any denomination that holds a vocal position against abortion could be considered intimidation. The stand that some religious institutions take is prominently advertised.

Intimidation works both ways, and the ACLU has mastered its use. The city of Los Angeles, under threat of legal action, changed a decades-old logo by removing a cross from the design.

Los Angeles is sometimes called the City of Angels. Is the next step changing the city’s name? Los Angeles was founded in 1781, but that might mean nothing if someone concludes that calling a public place something that has a religious connotation is a violation of the mythical separation of church and state.

Watchdogs serve an important function in a free society. Government action has to be scrutinized, and most citizens don’t take the time or the resources to do it.

Voting is the supreme instance of free speech, and anything that would intimidate a voter is unacceptable. But so is using intimidation to shut down a freely expressed point of view that one doesn’t like. Protecting the one right does not excuse eliminating the other.



Hawkins is retired after 35 years as a construction industry association manager. He was a broadcast reporter and news anchor in Denver. As a Navy officer, he saw action in Vietnam in the River Assault Squadrons and is the recipient of a Silver Star and Purple Heart. He can be reached at george.hawkins@sddt.com.

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