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Hartford, Conn, Set to Raise Christian Flag at Center of Supreme Court Controversy

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By Stephen Underwood
Hartford Courant

(Hartford Courant) — Hartford is set to raise the Christian flag over city hall after a contentious debate over what flags should be flown on city property. online news

The resolution, introduced by council Democrats, calls for the historical white and blue flag with a red Latin cross to be flown on Thursday in observance of Holy Week before Easter Sunday. The flag, designed over a century ago, represents all Christian denominations.

The flag raising comes after Hartford and numerous towns across the state have passed policies restricting what flags can be flown on municipal flagpoles. Strict flag policies, now commonplace across Connecticut, have sparked controversy in several towns over what flags should or should not be flown on municipal property. Several towns have outright banned the Pride flag and the POW/MIA flag while allowing only official government flags to be flown. Proponents of flag policies have said they are necessary to avoid lawsuits.

Hartford opted not to adopt an official policy last year after the U.S. Supreme Court found that the city of Boston violated a private organization’s First Amendment rights by refusing to raise the Christian flag at City Hall, given that they had allowed other flags in the past and that the city did not have a policy in place.

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Instead, Hartford’s new flag policy, which was unanimously adopted Monday evening, will allow flags of other nations, flags of sports teams, and flags displayed in conjunction with official events or ceremonies to be flown at city hall. The ordinance does not expressively prohibit religious flags from flying on city property.

While the policy is more inclusive than several other towns in recent years, it still prohibits flag poles as a forum of public expression. Council members are the only ones that can decide what flags can fly.

“That is really the crux of the policy position that was drafted into this,” said the city’s corporation counsel Jonathon Harding. “Our flagpoles are not a forum of public expression, they are a forum of city expression.”

But the decision to fly the Christian flag over city hall was met with some opposition.

Democratic council members who supported the resolution included Council President Shirley Surgeon, Maly Rosado, Marilyn Rossetti, Amilcar Hernandez, Thomas “TJ” Clarke II and Kelly Bilodeau as well as Working Families Party member and pastor Alex Thomas. Working Families Party member Josh Michtom and John Gale of the Hartford Party both opposed the flag raising.

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“We have many Christian organizations that serve the residents of the city, we’re just recognizing those organizations and the work they do,” said Surgeon, who co-sponsored the resolution. “We want to show that we recognize them and what they provide to residents of Hartford.”

Other Democrats on the council said that the resolution aligns with the city’s new flag policy.

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“It is the prerogative of any council member to put in a resolution to request a flag for city expression,” Hernandez said. “That aligns clearly with the ordinance we passed. Because it is Holy Week, the author of this resolution thought it was a good idea to raise the flag in observance of this week. This still aligns with the ordinance that speaks to flags can be raised in alignment with any ceremonies or events like Holy Week. I don’t see exactly where we could be running into any particular issues.”

But Michtom, who voted against the resolution, said that he believes flying a Christian flag will put the city in legal jeopardy. Under the Supreme Court ruling, a municipality cannot deny another group’s right to fly a flag if other flags are flown, all but ensuring the city must agree to flying other religious flags, according to Michtom.

“As a legal matter, this vote will expose us to lawsuits in the future if another constituent requests a different religious flag and we say no. More importantly, the separation of church and state is an important value to uphold. The faith of the people and the good works they do within their religious communities don’t need an endorsement from the city, and are, in fact, tarnished by such an endorsement. That endorsement may also have the effect of alienating people of other faiths who are not recognized,” Michtom said.

Councilman Gale, who also opposed the resolution, said that he is concerned flying one religious flag instead of another violates the Constitutional rights of other religious groups.

“The very first problem is that the Constitution of the United States indicates that Congress should pass no law promoting the establishment of any religion. That First Amendment, like the Supreme Court decision, is applicable to all the states and municipalities in those states. Hartford should not be in the business of establishing any religion. Flying a flag of any religion is promoting it. There’s no other reason for flying a flag, except to promote.”

The flag is scheduled to be placed atop city hall on Thursday and taken down on Friday.

©2024 Hartford Courant. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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Notes from APS Radio News

A number of commentators, including constitutional experts, argue that publicly owned property should maintain strict neutrality, by avoding the display of any religious symbols, even if the intent is not to favor any particlar religion or set of religious beliefs.

Especially is this true, they say, as society becomes ever more diverse.

Others argue that as long as no particular religion is being favored and as long as symbols of various religions are represented as well, the state is not discriminating against any religion.

Still, others say that, according to polls, more people are saying that they belong to no relgion, their preferences and standards are being discriminated against, when religious symbols are being displayed, as if implying that all people have or share the same beliefs about a higher power or a creator.

They say that if the state is to represent all the people, there must be separation between church and state.

A number of constitutional experts say that the state should not promote religion and that its expression should be reserved for venues privately owned and maintained.

If the public square is to represent all the people, it must be free from religious symbols and ideology, they maintain.

Others use the First Amendment as a reason to justify expressions of religious beliefs, provided the government is promoting no particular set of beliefs.

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