Batavia adopts new flag policy amid controversy over City Hall flags

The City of Batavia kicks off Pride Month with the raising of the Pride flag across from City Hall on Thursday, June 1, 2023.

After a request by a Batavia resident to fly a religious-themed flag, members of the Batavia City Council voted to adopt a new flag policy that would prohibit such suggestions by residents in order to mitigate legal risks.

Flags flown at City Hall include the U.S. flag, the State of Illinois flag, the P.O.W. flag and the Batavia Community flag, respectively, in order of precedence. The unity flag also is flying at City Hall in honor of June being Pride month.

The new policy states “the city’s flagpoles are not intended to serve as a forum for free expression by the public” and that “the city shall acquire ownership of all flags that it flies.”

Under the new policy, flags flown at Batavia City Hall are considered government speech and are to be chosen solely by the discretion of City Council members and not at the request of residents or local organizations.

The policy states additional flags may be displayed as an expression of the city’s official sentiments, pursuant to proclamations by the mayor and voted upon by City Council members, including flags of governments recognized by the U.S. and flags in conjunction with official city events or ceremonies.

The policy was adopted in a unanimous vote at the June 17 City Council meeting after discussion by council members and public comment from four Batavia residents.

Consideration of the new policy came after a request in May from Batavia resident Bob McQuillen to display the Sacred Heart of Jesus flag on the government center flagpole. Shortly after his request, city staff began drafting the new policy.

The recommendation from staff to adopt the new flag policy referenced the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court Case Shurtleff v. Boston in which the city of Boston, Massachusetts, was found in violation of a resident’s First Amendment rights by denying a request to fly a religious-themed flag.

Before the case, the city of Boston had allowed organizations to use one of the city’s flagpoles for various causes, but denied a resident’s request to fly a religious-themed flag. The Supreme Court ruled the Boston flagpole under the city’s previous policy constituted a public forum and therefore the city could not discriminate based on a religious viewpoint.

“I don’t know if there would be an end to it. You would have a whole bunch of people down here wanting to add their flag.”

—  Jeffery Schielke, mayor of Batavia

The ruling compelled the city of Boston to change its policy, clarifying that the flagpole is meant to express government speech and not for public expression, similar to the policy adopted by the Batavia City Council.

Batavia City Council members and residents engaged in a lengthy discussion over the policy at a June 11 Committee of the Whole meeting, debating whether the flags flown at City Hall constitute a public forum or government speech.

McQuillen argued the flagpoles were a public forum and petitioned council members to allow the religious-themed flag to be flown.

The request by McQuillen to display the religious-themed flag was on the Committee of the Whole agenda for possible approval, along with a separate item to perpetually fly the unity flag on the city flagpole. Both items were tabled because of the pending new flag policy despite the city already having raised the unity flag June 3 in honor of Pride month.

McQuillen also spoke during the June 17 City Council meeting. He took issue with the choice of flags under the new policy being solely the decision of the aldermen and said he hopes the public will be able to come to their aldermen and request that a flag be flown.

“You are taking the public out of this situation or this decision because a proclamation can only be brought up by an alderman,” McQuillen said. “I’m not aware of any other policy in the city that says only an alderman can bring something up.”

McQuillen’s wife, Karen, also spoke during the City Council meeting, saying she does not believe the unity flag, which she referred to as “the gay pride flag,” is a flag that unites people. She asked the council to consider the values of all community members when choosing which flags are raised.

Two other residents spoke at the meeting, both in favor of adopting the flag policy and flying only government flags on city property.

Mayor Jeffery Schielke said that after the discussion at the Committee of the Whole meeting, he received several requests from local groups looking to add their flag to the city’s flagpole.

“I don’t know if there would be an end to it,” Schielke said. “You would have a whole bunch of people down here wanting to add their flag.”

McQuillen’s request to fly the Sacred Heart of Jesus flag, which was tabled at last week’s Committee of the Whole meeting, was not brought to the City Council meeting agenda.