Civil rights advocates sue Michigan township for rejecting racial justice message

Dec 8, 2021 at 1:40 pm
Plaintiff Tony Miller with his daughter at a statue in the Garden of Honor in Allendale Township, where he wanted to inscribe a brick with the phrase "Black Lives Matter” or “Indigenous Lives Matter.” - Civil Rights Litigation Initiative
Civil Rights Litigation Initiative
Plaintiff Tony Miller with his daughter at a statue in the Garden of Honor in Allendale Township, where he wanted to inscribe a brick with the phrase "Black Lives Matter” or “Indigenous Lives Matter.”

Four civil rights advocates have filed a civil right lawsuit that alleges Allendale Township censored their free speech rights promoting racial justice.

The lawsuit filed in the Western District of Michigan on Monday stems from a township fundraising initiative that allows residents to pay for messages on engraved bricks in a local park. While the township allowed a wide range of messages, including religious ones, it rejected bricks with messages supporting racial equality, the lawsuit states.

“Allendale has permitted bricks with religious messages, messages advertising local businesses, and messages celebrating high school graduation classes,” Peter Harding, a student-attorney for the Civil Rights Litigation Initiative (CRLI) at the University of Michigan Law School, which represents the advocates, said in a statement. “However, when our clients applied for bricks advocating racial justice, Allendale singled them out for discriminatory treatment in clear violation of the First Amendment.”

The bricks are placed in the township’s Garden of Honor, which is surrounding statues commemorating various wars. One of the statues depicts a Confederate soldier and a Union soldier with a small, enslaved Black child between their legs. The Allendale Township Board has resisted calls to remove the Confederate statue.

click to enlarge A statue of a Confederate soldier and a Union soldier with a small, enslaved Black child between their legs in the Garden of Honor in Allendale. - Civil Rights Litigation Initiative
Civil Rights Litigation Initiative
A statue of a Confederate soldier and a Union soldier with a small, enslaved Black child between their legs in the Garden of Honor in Allendale.

In March, Tony Miller, a Black veteran of the Navy, submitted an application to buy a brick to promote racial equality and honor Black and Indigenous Americans in the U.S. military. Miller wanted to inscribe a brick with either the phrase “Black Lives Matter” or “Indigenous Lives Matter,” followed by the name of a veteran.

After Miller and several other civil rights advocates wanted to inscribe positive messages about racial equality, the township board changed the rules to only allow messages that included a veteran’s name, branch of service, dates of service, war or conflict, location of service, rank, unit, medals, and awards, according to the lawsuit.

“I just want to make Allendale a more welcoming home for families like mine,” Miller said in a statement. “It’s not fair for the Board to change the rules just to prevent us from promoting racial justice.”

The lawsuit asks the court to order Allendale to install the bricks promoting racial equality.

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