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Orcutt vs. Caltrans: An American flag too far

March 04, 2013|By Dan Turner
  • A pillar and flag proposed as part of a public monument in the Central California town of Orcutt was rejected by Caltrans, which forbids displaying the flag on public streets.
A pillar and flag proposed as part of a public monument in the Central California… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

The conflict over religious words and images mounted in government spaces has become such a common battleground in the culture wars that, unless you're a conservative cable news channel looking to stir up righteous outrage, it seems barely worth opining about anymore. But the public-space skirmish has taken such a bizarre twist in the tiny Central California town of Orcutt that it has left Christians, liberals, atheists and conservatives alike shaking their heads.

During a town revitalization drive about a decade ago, a group of residents came up with the idea of creating a monument to the U.S. armed forces to be built on a sliver of land owned by the California Department of Transportation at a park-and-ride lot it maintains at the edge of town. Winning the sponsorship of the American Legion, the $60,000 monument was controversial to no one -- except Caltrans. The agency has rejected its construction because it would include a pole bearing the American flag, as well as words such as "United States" on the five planned pillars dedicated to the different branches of the armed services.

At this point, one would be permitted to wonder if the folks at Caltrans have their heads shoved up their asphalt. Why on Earth would anyone find it objectionable to put our nation's symbols on an unused slice of California real estate? If the decision stirs confusion and annoyance among moderates, it must seem doubly confusing to conservatives; it fits the usual right-wing meme about a tyrannical government preventing the people from exercising their free-speech rights, yet it's the (federal) government's symbols that are being blocked, not the usual displays of Christian piety that get the evangelical crowd so fired up.

Moral outrage seems the appropriate response for all sides, which is why many doubtless cheered the Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors for sending a letter to Caltrans urging it to let the flag "stand tall," not to mention Orcutt representative Peter Adam, who said that eliminating the flag was "a degree of crazy we shouldn't allow."

Despite the chest-thumping, though, this issue is a lot more complicated than it seems. Caltrans officials appear to be making a good-faith effort to comply with federal law. During the height of post-9/11 patriotism in 2001, a pro-peace group in Santa Cruz mounted antiwar banners on a freeway overpass, near where others had put up American flags. The antiwar banners were removed but the flags were allowed to remain, prompting a lawsuit that Caltrans lost in 2003; the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the agency couldn't discriminate by allowing some forms of speech (the flags) but not others (the banners). Since then, Caltrans has banned all flags from state roads.

Frustrating as it is, then, Caltrans appears to be doing the right thing. And furious as the Orcutt townsfolk might be about it, they can probably live without a pro-miliary monument. They can come up with other ways, or places, to display their support for the armed forces; the monument was a 10-year-old idea that just didn't pan out. Semper fi, Be All You Can Be -- and get over it.

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