New flag policy at the center of LGBTQ controversy in New Jersey

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rainbow flag waving in the wind
Rainbow Flag, photo by Köln

Each year, as May comes to a close and June makes its way around, the LGBTQ community prepares to unravel its Pride flags. Often, the rainbow-colored flags are flown in greater masses in June, in commemoration and celebration of Pride month and all the history that comes along with it.

However, this year some New Jersey towns struggled to get their Pride flags flown. And new town and school flag policies may be to blame.

The pushback against LGBTQ pride is not a new concept for New Jersey. In fact, since the state passed its updated sexual education policy in 2020, New Jersey has seen a rise in combative conflicts about LGBTQ-themed safe-space stickers, books, and LGBTQ topics within educational material. So it may come as no surprise that in 2023, flags celebrating Pride month were quickly challenged in certain areas of the state.

In late February, the Sussex County town of Sparta introduced what has come to be known as the Flag Flying Policy. The policy, under Ordinance 23-03, outlined a new procedure and process for having flags other than the United States flag, the New Jersey state flag, and the POW MIA flags flown on township flagpoles.

While members of the public may request a flag to be flown, the ordinance established the township council members as the deciders of which flags will be added to the agenda for a vote, and which flags will ultimately be flown. According to the ordinance, if a majority of township council members approve the flag to go on an agenda, and it’s approved by a majority vote, then that flag will get to fly.

This ordinance and new procedure did not sit well with some members of the Sparta community. After its initial introduction, the town held an early May meeting which was open for public comment.

Hours of discussion were had over the Flag Flying Policy. Locals, both for and against, bickered back and forth with the town over why they did or did not want the ordinance approved.

“I think it is important to remember this ordinance was only introduced after citizens’ requests to raise a Pride flag were denied by the town council in 2021 and 2022,” Kate Salerna, a local resident said in a report by TAPInto. “This is tied to the LGBTQ community because we have been asking you directly to raise the Pride flag and the most recent rejection came with the assertion that if we ever wanted a snowball’s chance in hell to do so we would have to craft an ordinance because of the Boston lawsuit. So we did that.”

Those against the ordinance felt as though flagpoles in the township should remain “neutral,” and that flying diverse flags would tie the town to those beliefs that are associated with chosen flags, or that it would tie those who vote against certain flags to opposing beliefs.

“It is about government speech and asking to keep the flagpole neutral,” resident Ryan Dumpert said. “We all support the LGBT community. We all feel it is a wonderful movement and we don’t think it’s fair that you’ve tied it to the ordinance the way you have and silenced people… you made them feel that they couldn’t speak up. People felt afraid. No one I have spoken to in Sparta is against LGBTQIA.”

Sparta ultimately approved the Flag Flying Policy in a 3-2 vote, with Councilman Josh Hertzberg and Councilwoman Christine Quinn opposing the ordinance. And on May 23, Sparta approved the flying of the Pride flag from June 1-7, as well as approved the flying of a flag on June 14, to commemorate the birthday of the U.S. Army, and one on June 19, to mark Juneteenth.

Both Councilpersons Hertzberg and Quinn voted in opposition to these three flags.

The Bergen County borough of Westwood saw disputes similar to the ones that surrounded Sparta’s flag policy. However, here, flag policies are stricter, and the issues are concentrated in a smaller setting — the school grounds.

On May 11, the Westwood Regional School District approved its flag policy, which prohibits any flag other than the American flag and New Jersey state flag to be flown on flagpoles. The decision immediately left some community members concerned that this would impact displays of PRIDE flags, a concern that would later be proven justified.
Just days before PRIDE month began, on May 24 a sign supporting the LGBTQ community that was placed on the lawn of the local school was taken down by the administration. As expected, members of the community retaliated, and a second sign, with rainbow dots replacing the Pride flag, was placed on school property.

The district was silent as to whether or not this was acceptable at first. But that was until Westwood Regional School District Superintendent Jill Mortimer sent an email to parents and the community reminding the district that Pride flags and signs will not be permitted outside school buildings.

“All students and staff are valued members of our school community and it is wrong for anyone to be made to feel otherwise,” Mortimer said, starting out her email. She said it was, a “moral imperative for our students to feel safe and accepted in our schools.”

In her opinion, Superintendent Mortimer said the only signs that should be outside school district buildings are “signs that advertise or relate to school events.” She also stated her opinion is based on the legal opinions of the school’s attorney.

“I need to use district funds judiciously, and I will not expose the district to potentially costly legal fees, especially when we have significant inclusivity programming and opportunities,” she said.

Despite over 1,500 signatures on a student-run petition to return the Pride sign to the school, there has been no confirmation that the Pride sign in Westwood was redisplayed.

About an hour and a half south of Westwood, another borough in New Jersey also decided some Pride flags were in need of removal. Except these removals weren’t based on a flag policy, but on a neighborhood complaint.

In the Middlesex County borough of Highland Park, four Pride flags displayed on Raritan Avenue were removed after a local Orthodox Jewish congregation requested they not be in front of their synagogue. Like in Westwood, the removal angered many members of the local LGBTQ community.

In a borough council meeting, members of the community shared their opinions on the removal. Del (they/them), co-founder and producer of QuEar Candy, the local PRIDE music festival group, seemingly led the charge.

“Over the last 26 months I have spent hundreds of hours creating an LGBTQ+ nonprofit called QuEar Candy to boldly affirm LGBTQ youth for the large-scale LGBTQ+ music festival commensurate with our town’s status as an LGBTQ+ Haven,” they said. “We have received cooperation from the town for the last two of those 26 months. That was more than nothing, but not at all commensurate with the scale of the event or its grave importance.”

Del goes on to say that QuEar Candy faced “shocking” and “inexplicable” barriers from the town, including two failed Park Partner Grant attempts. They say the company was reassured that the town government was “not ill-intended,” but “wildly incompetent.”

As a leader in this charge, Del developed a petition to get the four Pride flags returned to Raritan Avenue. The petition, titled ‘One is not Enough,’ outlines why the community felt the flag removal was in poor taste on the mayor’s part.

“We are deeply uncomfortable with the Mayor’s removal of four flags due to pressure from a small group of citizens, failure to protect the separation of church and state for the protection of all community members, including the Orthodox Jewish community, lying and inconsistencies in the aftermath of the flags’ removal, covert ‘soft ban’ of Pride flags through an addendum to the town’s flag policy added at her request after all the flags were removed, and unwillingness to agree to return a generous, visible display of pride flags for the duration of the month of June,” the petition stated. “We were most deeply concerned and dismayed by the Mayor’s failure of leadership in her inability to make any genuine, empathic statement of understanding to mirror the community’s descriptions of the harm by both these flags removals, especially in response to the courageous youth who spoke Tuesday night, one of whom serves on her advisory committee.”

It continues, “We found the Mayor’s demeanor and words disrespectful, demeaning, and dismissive. In the final moments of the meeting, when I asked her how she would respond to the youth who said ‘One is not enough,’ when the flag raising was repeatedly offered as an adequate gesture for pride month, the mayor disdainfully offered to consider one additional flag at Borough Hall.”

After receiving hundreds of signatures, QuEar Candy, in partnership with Eshel, an LGBTQ+-supporting Orthodox Jewish group, planned a “Community Action” protest on Raritan Avenue to further push for the return of the flags. That same day, June 26, the town returned all four flags to the street.

“We thank the Mayor and council members for returning the pride flags to Raritan Avenue for the next few days,” the updated petition says. “We call on them to provide a plan for future Pride months, as we did in the original petition, given the Mayor would not agree to such a display at the Town Council meeting Tuesday night.”