Clint Schnekloth, a Lutheran pastor in Fayetteville, has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit over his removal from two meetings of the Washington County Quorum Court.
Schnekloth hoped to speak on a range of issues, including the anti-abortion resolution the Quorum Court adopted last week, the county’s failure to spend federal COVID relief money and treatment of JP Eva Madison.
The lawsuit names JPs Patrick Deakins, Sam Duncan and Jim Wilson and County Attorney Brian Lester.
The suit says Duncan acted unlawfully in ordering deputies to remove Schnekloth, during a meeting June 28, and Lester and Deakins also acted unlawfully in ordering him removed before the meeting July 15. Lester is also chair of the county Republican Party. In both cases, the pastor said there was no apparent reason for his removal. The lawsuit objected to Wilson “impermissibly” inquiring of him before a meeting if he “knew Jesus.”
From the lawsuit:
Defendants have implemented and are continuing to enforce, encourage, or sanction an official policy, custom, or practice of unconstitutionally detaining and removing constituents during public Quorum Court meetings in violation of the First and Fourth Amendments. Their failure to remedy this official and ongoing civil rights violation amounts to deliberate indifference.
In addition, Defendants’ official custom, pattern, and practice of inquiring into constitutents’ religious views and only removing or censuring constituents with viewpoints who disagree with the Defendants’ violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The County does not have a policy for when it is procedurally appropriate to remove a person from a public Quorum Court meeting, and, if anything, it appears the official practice is in flux. It is not clear if it is an executive branch function, and if it is, the executive branch is not the one ordering constituents’ removal. Instead it is the legislative branch.
There is no legislative authority in the County’s rules for legislators to order a person’s removal (nor has there been any delegation of executive authority), yet it is legislative officials who are ordering the removal of people, such as Mr. Schnekloth, in violation of his civil rights. Defendants’ have shown deliberate indifference in halting these violations or creating constitutionally adequate procedures.
The Sheriff and deputy sheriffs do not have training or guidance on when they may (or must) act to remove people from public meetings. At times, County officials have said it may only be done by the County Judge using his executive authority. At other times, the Sheriff has stated discretion lies with him.
The official custom, policy, or practice is: if a Justice of the Peace points and requests a person’s removal, someone is removed and prohibited from exercising their right to speak.
The result is a an official custom, policy, or practice of violating constituents’ civil rights, awkward local government meetings, anxious interactions with deputy sheriffs who appear frustrated they are ordered to remove people without due proccess or good cause, and a chilling effect on protected speech.
Legal issues aside, the lawsuit amounts to a detailed account of the turbulent meetings of the majority Republican Quorum Court, in which minority Democratic voices are routinely squelched.
Example is this lawsuit passage about the June 28 meeting:
Before the beginning of the meeting, Defendants Lester and Duncan excluded JP Madison from fully participating in legislative debate by forcing her to sit with the crowd in the Quorum Court’s galley. Mr. Schnekloth stood and calmly said to the crowd in protest, “look what they’ve done, they’ve excluded one of the only two women and Democrats present from the meeting.”
A traditional Unitarian Universalist prayer was then led by a minister selected by JP Rios Stafford, who was heckled by several members of the public for not being sufficiently evangelical. For example, several community members began shouting “in Jesus’ name” and “say his name” during the prayer and at its conclusion.
JP Madison was taunted by some people as a “princess” for attempting to sit with the other Quroum Court members, for questioning Defendant Lester about problems with the public defender’s office and recycling services, and for attempting to speak about her personal experience of raising an adopted child to provide context on what it means to be “pro-life.” JP Rios Stafford [who is transgender] was ridiculed by others for not having a uterus.
The lawsuit says interjections by those supporting Republican majority positions have not resulted in meeting ejections.