Amid Supreme Court decision, suburban boards wrestle with whether to fly Pride flag
On Wednesday, rainbow-colored flags were hoisted outside homes, businesses and churches for the start of Pride Month to celebrate the LGBTQ community in the suburbs and beyond.
The flag also went up over some government-owned properties, including village halls, parks and libraries -- some being raised there for the first time.
That includes the flagpole outside the Arlington Heights Memorial Library, where the most recent flag-flying controversy in the suburbs played out in recent months.
The library board debate coincided with a May 2 unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision that found the city of Boston erred when it refused an activist's request to fly a Christian flag outside city hall.
The court decision gave pause to some library trustees who feared a lawsuit from any group that seeks to fly its flag at the library but is denied. The board, however, legally firmed up the library's new flag rules last week -- specifically citing the Boston decision in its written policy -- which led to the flag raising at the Dunton Avenue pole Wednesday morning.
"I think so much of the flag-flying question has not been only controversial obviously for a lot of places, but with the recent Supreme Court ruling, I think folks are trying to get a better handle on their policies for flying flags," said Austin Mejdrich, founder of the Northwest Suburban Pride Action Fund, a political action committee that's lobbied elected boards in the area to raise the flags on government flagpoles. "So a lot of places aren't necessarily second-guessing but taking a second look at it."
Arlington Heights library's policy -- modeled off one adopted by the Glenview library board -- says flags flown on the library's poles serve as a "government forum for expression of the library's mission, vision, values or sentiments," and as such are to be approved by trustees.
Roger Ritzman, a Wheaton-based attorney who represents the Arlington Heights library and other local governments, said local boards have "broad discretion" to determine what is flown on government flagpoles.
But in Boston, the city flagpole had become a public forum, "where it's basically come one, come all," Ritzman said.
Justice Stephen Breyer, penning the majority opinion, wrote that Boston violated a conservative activist's free speech rights when it denied his flag, after approving hundreds of other groups' requests to fly their flags in the past.
Local governments have taken varying approaches to where Pride flags are flown -- if at all. Many are choosing to recognize the LGBTQ community with written proclamations instead.
The Pride flags at both the Arlington Heights and Glenview libraries rose after village boards in both towns rejected calls for flags at their village halls. Glenview's library hoisted the flag for the first time last year.
In Des Plaines, the city council last year voted 5-2 to raise the Pride flag in front of city hall, adding the rainbow flag to 11 others already permitted there. The new policy, introduced by Mayor Andrew Goczkowski two weeks after being sworn in, came five years after the flag became a local political lightning rod when it was flown at the city-owned library building following a deadly mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
Then-Mayor Matthew Bogusz gave library board President Greg Sarlo permission to raise the flag, but the council soon enacted rules on what flags could be flown and left the Pride flag off the list.
Buffalo Grove officials agreed last year to display the flag on the Rotary Village Green -- a public park -- but not at village hall. The village's attorneys cited legal and constitutional issues with the latter spot, believing it could become a public forum for other groups.
The Pride flag flew above the Illinois State Capitol for the first time in 2019. It flew for the first time last year at Daley Plaza, in an effort spearheaded by Cook County Commissioner Kevin Morrison of Mount Prospect, the first openly LGBTQ person elected to the county board.
Mejdrich, who was with Morrison and other supporters at the Arlington Heights library when the board agreed to fly the Pride flag, said his advocacy approach in each town has been to first evaluate the local political landscape, see if they have the votes, and if not, find another way for the LGBTQ community to be publicly recognized -- most often, through a written proclamation.
"For large swaths of the LGBTQ community and our allies, family and friends that support us, having the Pride flag is such a powerful symbol that helps us reflect on where we've come and all the fights we've had to get there, and to have some hope and optimism going forward," said Mejdrich, whose day job is district director for Democratic state Rep. Mark Walker of Arlington Heights.
"Having something like a village board or state or wherever flying this flag -- they're embracing us, and for so long, that hasn't been the case."