Darien OKs controversial ban of non-government flags on town property despite Darien Pride's concern

Flags fly outside of Town Hall in Darien, Conn. Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022. The Darien Board of Selectmen approved the controversial ban all non-government flags from flying on town property.

Flags fly outside of Town Hall in Darien, Conn. Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022. The Darien Board of Selectmen approved the controversial ban all non-government flags from flying on town property.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

DARIEN — After months of debate and accusations of partisan politics, Darien Town Hall will not fly any flags other than the town flag, Connecticut flag and U.S. flag.

The Board of Selectmen voted 3-2 in favor of the controversial policy to ban non-governmental flags after a tight and occasionally terse debate.

First discussed in August, the policy has faced strong political and community backlash for what some considered harmful to the LGBTQ+ community in Darien by not allowing the Pride flag to be displayed on town property.

“There is tremendous government power in government speech, as well as government silence,” Darien Pride committee chair Dan Guller said. “Any proposal to ban the Pride flag from town property, whether intentional or simply collateral, could have devastating consequences in Darien.”

The discussion over flags reportedly began in March when a resident requested the Ukrainian flag be flown at town hall in solidarity with Ukraine after the Russian invasion.

The debate grew thornier in May when the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the city of Boston violated the First Amendment by not allowing a Christian flag to be displayed at city hall.

Since March, First Selectman Monica McNally said there have been 12 additional flag requests, including recognizing Pride, military prisoners of war and an anti-abortion stance. 

Darien officials discussed two potential policies to implement, either prohibiting non-governmental flags or creating a request process to display organizational or commemorative flags, modeled after the town of South Windsor.

Town attorney Wayne Fox said the South Windsor policy was the better choice “because it outlined in some detail the process that one would follow if one wanted to go down that road.”

All three Republicans, including the First Selectman, supported limiting the flags for various reasons.

Selectman Jon Zagrodzky expressed concern for the legal issues that a flag request process could set up over which flags are approved or denied.

He also said that it would be “trivial and almost insulting” for the Board of Selectman to spend a large amount of time deciding what goes on a flagpole rather than going out into the community to support those groups in person.

“It is much better for us to support town residents who take these causes seriously and to show our pride and support and unity with them,” he said. “We do that by getting out in the community and being part of what they're celebrating, part of what they're promoting, not running a flag up the front of town hall.”

Selectman Sarah Neumann disagreed with his characterization of displaying a flag on town property or residents' requests as trivial.

“To have the support of the town is very important,” she said. “When I look at state and national buildings that have the Pride flag up, I see that as government supporting it.”

Both Democrats on the board, Neumann and Michael Burke, voted against the ban.

Burke stressed the importance of government speech, repeatedly saying that prohibiting non-governmental flags would “punt” the conversation.

“We're government, and we need to stand for something sometimes,” Burke said. “Sometimes that means standing up when a particular group is being bullied or ignored.”

McNally eventually responded to Burke calling the three-flag limit the “easy choice.”

“I'm not happy with you continuing to say that,” she said. “Nobody is punting this. We are having a very active discussion. I don't think if we choose to go this way that that's taking the easy way.

“I personally think that the Darien flag, the Connecticut flag and the American flag cover everybody in our community. Every single person is represented underneath those rights,” she said.

After the meeting, McNally said she had hoped the three-flag policy would be a “unifier in town.”

“There's two sides to everything,” McNally said. “Having the three flags, I feel like it's a win for our whole community, and that's what I was going for.”

Guller said it was a shame the Board of Selectmen “didn’t have the courage to stand up for queer youth of the town.”

“They let partisan politics get in the way of the mental health of our children,” he said.