Let the flags fly


The reluctance of the Oak Bluffs Select Board to allow certain flags to fly is overly restrictive, and creates a perception of intolerance.

The town’s select board has quarreled off and on for more than a year over a flag policy. It’s a good discussion to have, given the embarrassment from last year, when the board did not allow the Juneteenth flag to fly, but allowed a Progressive Pride flag to fly weeks earlier. 

There’s also a fear the town could be sued for setting the wrong policy. The city of Boston was sued for $2 million last year for not allowing a “Christian” flag to fly, in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. 

But that doesn’t mean that symbols like the Pride flag or Juneteenth flag can’t, and shouldn’t, be flown. To the contrary: The willingness to show the colors of communities that have wrongfully been marginalized and oppressed for generations should be not only allowed but encouraged.

Last spring, the Oak Bluffs Select Board approved a new policy that does not allow flags on town poles aside from the American flag, the prisoners of war and missing in action flag, and other municipal and military flags. 

The most recent proposal, pitched last week, is to create a new, “ceremonial” pole that will allow other flags.

As stated by a select board member during last week’s discussion, the idea is to “communicate the town’s recognition of the inclusivity and diversity of the community which it serves.”

The proposal might still need some refinement, but the spirit is there, and the board is headed in the right direction. 

But some town officials worry that the new proposal would make it hard for the board to turn down “other” requests. 

There was no mention of what those “other” requests might be at last week’s meeting. It’s not the first time town officials have stated a concern for these “other” flags. But after a records request by The Times, there’s been no indication that any specific applications have been made, nor have there been requests at other public meetings. 

But even if some inappropriate requests are made (maybe it’s the Satanic Temple in Salem that made the request in Boston last summer), with the right policy, the board can be selective in what they allow to fly in the very public Ocean Park. 

Looking at last year’s Boston case offers some clarity and guidance for Oak Bluffs.

Outside of City Hall, Boston has three flag poles. The American flag and state flag fly on two, and Boston typically flies the city’s flag from the third pole. Occasionally, they’ve allowed other groups to fly their flag as well. The city approved about 50 different requests between 2005 and 2017.

Then in 2017, Harold Shurtleff, the director of an organization called Camp Constitution, asked to hold an event on the plaza to celebrate the civic and social contributions of the Christian community. The group has raised some eyebrows for its claims that the Jan. 6 insurrection at the nation’s capital was a lie, and Shurtleff was previously employed by the John Birch Society, a right-wing extremist group. 

As part of that ceremony at City Plaza, Shurtleff wanted to raise what he called the Christian flag. 

The city approved the application to hold an event at the plaza, but didn’t allow the flag to fly, worried it would constitute government endorsement of a religion. Shurtleff sued on the grounds that his freedom of speech was violated.

The Supreme Court looked at whether this was government speech versus private expression. For government speech, the government is allowed to control its message, and there are little protections for free speech. But for private expression, speech can’t be restricted. 

The city’s policy, at the time, was intended to accommodate all applicants, so the Supreme Court found that the city had created a public forum. With a public forum, the city was restricted by what it could allow without infringing on free speech. If a group of Nazis wanted to put up a flag, the court’s ruling said that they would have to. 

After the ruling last summer, the Christian flag was flown for about two hours. 

But since then, the city has changed its policy. The Boston City Council passed an ordinance in August last year saying that any flag-raising request was not a matter of free expression but of official government, city-endorsed expression. For a flag to fly, the mayor has to make a declaration, or the council can pass a resolution. In other words, it’s coming from the government; it’s not a public forum.

If Oak Bluffs wants to be able to fly the Pride flag or the Juneteenth flag, they could also set a policy that clearly lays out flag flying as strictly government business. Maybe it’s a declaration read by the board.

But what is somewhat troubling, town officials in Oak Bluffs know this. Their own town counsel said as much at a public meeting, which makes us wonder why they haven’t set a new policy. Without a clear answer, there is a perception of resistance. And the perception that they are uncomfortable flying a Pride flag or a Juneteenth flag.

The town administrator recommends that the board set a clearer definition of what constitutes ceremony, in reference to installing a new, ceremonial flagpole. It’s a question worth considering. The board should not be in the position of approving every well-intentioned flag, such as those for International Pizza Day or National Pillow Fight Day. That only decreases the power of more meaningful flags.

But the board should base its decision on what has support from the community. Like when the Oak Bluffs Business Association and other residents came out to support the Pride flag. Or when the Vineyard chapter of the NAACP came out in support of the Juneteenth flag. Those requests had community buy-in. 

Select board members are elected to make the right decisions. Those might be difficult choices, but representing the will of the community is their duty. We hope they honor that commitment.


  1. It seems that the editors at the Times have no clue that there are people here who have pride in the flag that represents southern heritage. Namely the confederate battle flag.
    I happen to think that it represents intolerance and white supremacy., but that is my opinion.

    Some people here think the pride flag represents the failure and degradation of the Christian values that this country was founded upon.
    I personally think it represents tolerance and freedom.

    I am appalled that the editorial staff of the Times would deem the Satanic Temple flag “inappropriate” and presumably the Christian flag “appropriate”. How about the flag of the Flying Spaghetti Monster ? — I hope you support that, Susan…
    But , it’s their privately owned newspaper and they can editorialize all they want.
    The town is not privately owned by the selectboard, and thus should not favor one cause over another.

  2. Jim– I am a bit concerned that i am getting positive comments from conservatives on this one– But sometimes you just have to look at the bigger picture– The article states that there have been no formal request for other flags. That will change next week when I receive my Flying Spaghetti Monster flag.
    By the way Dec. 22 is national short person day.
    There is a flag
    Tall people ? you got it, June 21–
    international day of persons with disabilities ? —Dec 3
    see their flag here — who among the touchy feely liberals here would advocate that we ignore this special day and refuse to fly that flag ?
    And then I could get into what some people may consider more offensive days…
    But– I will reiterate that it is not the purview of a governmental agency to favor tall people over short people. Gay people over starlight people
    Heterosexual pride day is June 29
    There’s a straight flag—
    It’s that simple.
    Again, i support the LGBTQ+ community and the struggles that indigenous peoples and people of color have endured in this country.
    I am appalled that some southern states have enacted legislation to ban books that portray that struggle. The mentality to even think of banning books and putting gag orders on teachers and librarians goes against the very fabric of our free and open society.
    Oak Bluffs, as a governmental institution has no more right to fly a pride flag than the state of South Carolina has to fly a confederate battle flag.
    Need I post the official flag of the Klu Klux Klan ? It is naive to think there are not people on this island that embrace the philosophy symbolized by that hateful flag.
    i don’t want to see that flag flying over the town of Oak Bluffs.
    But governmental agencies are required by the constitution to be neutral.
    If they allow one, they have to allow all.
    To me, it’s pretty clear.

  3. One does not tolerate something they agree with so its easy to be tolerant of pride month for liberals. Are you tolerant of Christian groups advocating pro-life. I think not.

    • Yes Andy, I am tolerant of Christian groups advocating pro-life. I don’t agree with them, but they have the right to demonstrate freely. Just as I have the right to stand across the street and advocate for a woman’s right to choose what she does with her body. And, you won’t agree with this, but more often then not, it is your side the demonstrates intolerance of the other.

    • Andy–I tolerate all sorts of things that I don’t agree with. That’s what liberals do. But when the intolerant amongst us commit crimes of hatred, we get less tolerant.
      Christian groups , or any other group for that matter can say whatever they feel about abortion, but when they insist that a woman die from pregnancy complications rather than abort a severely deformed fetus, it gets a little harder.
      When hate groups stage violent rallies and kill people who are peacefully protesting it gets a little harder.
      When right wing hate groups violently storm the Capitol building to overturn a fair election and install a dictatorial megalomaniac as the president, it gets a little harder.
      And don’t forget, I was married to a born again evangelical christian.
      I am sure I am more tolerant of all religions than you would ever consider being.
      Just the fact that you think that anyone who believes in any god (or no god) other than yours is going to be condemned to eternal suffering is sufficient to show your level of intolerance.

  4. You have been railing against me for many years and I havent committed any crimes. You are not tolerant of my opinions and usually vociferously attack them including ad hominem. So please dont tell me with straight face you are tolerant of things you dont agree with. Being tolerant of all religions is silly. They cant all be the truth or can they. In your world view all of them are correct. I respect people who have differing religious views but to suggest they are all correct is dumb. I am tolerant of all climate prognostications even ones which deny. Is that real tolerance Keller. Am I tolerant of all human behavior? When left wing groups destroy Minneapolis(I was there the day George Floyd died) should I be tolerant? By the way there is no one who supports the death of a mother in order to save a deformed baby. NO one. Pro life people will always support the life of the mother in very unusual circumstances but not just for emotional distress.

    • Why is being tolerant of all religions silly? I don’t believe in God, Buddha, Allah or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I believe the bible, koran or any other books associated with them to be works of fiction, but I don’t feel the need to claim peoples beliefs are wrong. Though there are plenty of religious people who have no problem telling me my beliefs are wrong. To claim someone’s religion other then yours is dumb is not only intolerant, but also disrespectful. So no Andy, you don’t respect people with different religious views. It doesn’t work that way.

    • Andy– “nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong” – Bob Dylan.
      I did not state or imply that all religions are correct.
      I simply pointed out your stated belief that anyone who does not subscribe to your religious beliefs will suffer for eternity.
      That’s tautologically intolerant.
      Asa for abortions– a recent bill introduced in Idaho had to be amended because it made no exception for the life of the mother.
      The law that is in effect in Idaho leaves that subjective judgement entirely in the hands of the doctor.
      While all state laws currently have an exemption for the life of the mother, that has been debated on numerous occasions.
      The fact that it needs debating is troubling.
      I am absolutely certain that some birthing parents have died as a result of medical professionals hesitating too long.
      Probably about as often as “moment of birth” abortions.

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