Pro-life group’s request prompts adoption of flag policies across Franklin County

Deerfield’s municipal offices and Police Station on Conway Street.

Deerfield’s municipal offices and Police Station on Conway Street. Staff File Photo/Paul Franz

Orange Town Hall.

Orange Town Hall. Staff File Photo/Domenic Poli

Gill Town Hall.

Gill Town Hall. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By DOMENIC POLI and CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writers

Published: 12-05-2023 6:50 PM

Towns across Franklin County are starting to adopt flag policies after being approached by an anti-abortion group wanting to fly its banner on public grounds.

The Pro Life Legal Defense Fund Inc. emailed towns and cities across the state late last month to ask to have its flag raised on municipal flagpoles. This has spurred discussion at local selectboard meetings, and at least Orange, Gill and Deerfield have enacted policies to limit the types of flags flown on their towns’ behalf.

Per the policies, outdoor flags flown at town facilities are now officially limited to the prisoner-of-war/missing-in-action flag and those of the respective towns, the United States, the state of Massachusetts, the branches of the U.S. military and any displayed in conjunction with official town events or ceremonies.

“People have been scurrying to create a flagpole policy,” Orange Town Clerk Nancy Blackmer said at the Nov. 29 Selectboard meeting. She noted that Orange had yet to receive a request at that time, but that she was aware of other towns being propositioned. “But if we wait until we get a request, we’re going to be hard-pressed to say, ‘Oh, no, you can’t do it.’”

Blackmer said she referred to other towns’ policies and the state Attorney General’s Office before writing a draft policy for Orange.

“It really limits what can be flown on the town flagpoles,” she said.

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Selectboard Chair Tom Smith said he completely supports the policy and his colleagues concurred. The policy applies to the flagpoles at Town Hall and Memorial Park. Also, all flags to be flown must measure 3 feet by 5 feet and have appropriate grommets for hanging.

Colbe Mazzarella, president of the Pro Life Legal Defense Fund, said the flag in question features an image of baby footprints and the words “pro-life,” “pro-mother,” “pro-father” and “pro-child” within an outermost circle.

The Gill Selectboard adopted its own flag policy at its Dec. 4 meeting. Gill Town Administrator Ray Purington explained his town was contacted by the Pro Life Legal Defense Fund on Nov. 24, the day after Thanksgiving. He said Gill’s immediate reaction was to devise a flag policy.

“It would have been the same with any political organization making this request,” Purington said. “We don’t have enough staff to be dealing with the fallout from these types of issues.”

According to the new policy, the Gill-Montague Regional School District will determine the policy for flags that can be flown on flagpoles located at Gill Elementary School.

In Deerfield on Nov. 29, the Selectboard voted to adopt a similar policy. Assistant Town Administrator Chris Nolan said the town was contacted by an “overtly political organization,” though he did not specific whether it was the Pro Life Legal Defense Fund.

“Unless we have a policy stating that we do not allow private citizens to fly their flags on town-owned flagpoles, we might have a hard legal time defending our decision to deny them,” Nolan explained. “I want to be able to deliver a policy explaining why we have to tell them no.”

Outside of prisoner-of-war/missing-in-action flags and those representing the town, the United States, Massachusetts, the branches of the U.S. military and any displayed in conjunction with official town events or ceremonies, Deerfield’s policy states no other flags “shall be allowed on town of Deerfield-owned flagpoles” as the poles “are not intended, nor have they ever been intended, to establish or serve to create a forum for private expression.”

Deerfield Town Administrator Kayce Warren explained the policy the board adopted was a “foundation” document that laid out the town’s regulation, but it could potentially be changed by town counsel’s recommendation, which could then be adopted as an amendment.

Mazzarella said her Boston-based organization emailed municipalities to try to “remind them about the value of the life of the unborn human being and also find out which towns are open to people expressing their opinions through the flag and which towns are only using flags for the government-approved messages.”

She said the organization “got some maybes” and “some towns are in the process of considering it.”

Camp Constitution, a New Hampshire-based charitable trust, won a U.S. Supreme Court case against Boston in 2022. The state capital had denied a request to raise the Christian flag on a flagpole outside City Hall, but the highest court overruled the decision, forcing the city to allow the flag to be flown. The decision, written by Justice Stephen Breyer, also noted that nothing prevents Boston from changing its policies to exclude private speech in the future.

According to NPR, Boston had for years allowed the flying of flags on the third of City Hall’s three flagpoles if groups got permission to hold ceremonies on the city plaza. The city had between 2005 and 2017 approved the raising of 50 such flags, most of them marking the national holidays of other nations.

Reach Domenic Poli at dpoli@recorder.com or 413-930-4120. Reach Chris Larabee at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.