This story has been updated.
The RSU 63 school board on Monday voted 7-1 without discussion to have only the U.S. and Maine flags displayed in classrooms.
The rural school unit of Holden, Clifton and Eddington has been considering the policy since last year that would ban rainbow flags and flags from other nations that were not part of a study unit from being displayed in classrooms.
Rainbow flags, also called pride flags, often are displayed to support people in the LGBTQ community.
RSU 63 appears to be the first district in Maine to implement such a policy.
Similar policies have been implemented or are being considered by school districts, municipalities and legislatures around the country, according to a USA Today article published in February. Groups that support and oppose banning pride flags have organized to offer advice to people on how to weigh in on the issue locally.
Restrictions similar to the one approved in RSU 63 have been passed in school districts from Davis County, Utah, to Wales, Wisconsin, according to USA Today. Municipal governments in Delaware, Ohio, and in Cold Spring, New York, approved similar measures while in Green Bay, Wisconsin, an effort to push a similar citywide measure there was narrowly defeated earlier this year.
A bill, introduced in Florida by Republican state Rep. David Borrero, would limit flag displays at all governmental and public school buildings statewide. That measure is pending in Tallahassee.
The approximately 50 people, including students and staff, attending Monday night’s meeting at Holden Elementary School appeared to be evenly divided over the issue.
The flag policy, first adopted in 2017, outlines how the U.S. and Maine flags are displayed and when the Pledge of Allegiance is to be recited. The vote added the following sentence to the policy: “No other flags will be on display and remain on display unless it is pertinent to the current lesson for illustration.”
A seventh-grader at the Holbrook MIddle School, whose father asked that she not be identified, told the board that removing the rainbow flags signaled that the community does not care about LGBTQ students.
“Looking at rainbow flags in classrooms makes me feel not alone,” she told the board. “Without the flags, the school feels unwelcome, unsafe, like I don’t belong and that people don’t care. Pride flags can make students feel welcomed.”
After the vote, she said that she felt betrayed by the board.
“They didn’t take our ideas into consideration,” she said. “We were unheard, disrespected and our rights are being violated. By taking down the [rainbow] flags, they are saying that we can’t express ourselves.”
Ashley Murphy of Clifton, who has children attending schools in the district, supported the policy change.
“These two flags are really important,” she said. “I don’t think that flags are things that make students feel welcome. What makes students feel welcome are the teachers and staff.”
Board members Matthew Campbell, Cherie Faulkner, Tracy Roberts and Heather Lander, all of Holden, voted in favor of the policy, along with Karen Quimby of Eddington, and Linda Graban of Clifton and Heather Grass of Eddington voted in favor of the change to the flag policy.
Tracy Bigney of Eddington was the only board member who opposed the change to the policy.
After the meeting Campbell, who chairs the policy committee, refused to say how concerns about flags other than the U.S. and Maine banners being displayed in classrooms were brought to the board. Roberts, the board chair, declined to answer questions after the meeting adjourned.
Superintendent Jared Fulgoni, who was hired in June, said that he thought the issue arose before he took the job.
The policy also states that the U.S. and Maine flags are to be displayed outside each school in the district with the stars and stripes being displayed in each classroom. It calls for the voluntary reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance and requires that people remove head coverings when reciting it. At Bigney’s request, the board amended that section to allow for an exception for religious reasons.
The rainbow flag was invented in 1978 by Kansas-born artist Gilbert Baker at the request of Harvey Milk, an LGBTQ activist and lawmaker in San Francisco, according to the New York-based Gilbert Baker Foundation. He died in 2017.
The foundation has launched a “Save the Rainbow Flag” campaign that includes a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union warning municipalities and school districts that restricting which flags can be displayed in classrooms may be unconstitutional.
“The U.S. Constitution also guarantees robust free expression rights upon which the flag bans unlawfully infringe,” it states. “While speech in public schools may be subject to more restrictions than other arenas, the [U.S] Supreme Court has repeatedly held that First Amendment protections extend to ‘teachers and students,’ neither of whom ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.’”
The letter warns that banning pride flags may send a message to LGBTQ students that they aren’t welcome in schools, echoing what a few students told the RSU 63 board.
“The rainbow flag has been used to support LGBTQ students and instill a sense of community,” the letter said. “Removing the LGBTQ rainbow flag sends a message to students, allies and faculty that this community is not to be celebrated or protected. Such a message fosters an unsafe environment for many students.”
Several conservative Christian groups say the rainbow has been co-opted by the LGBTQ community and advocate that it is a religious symbol based on the story of Noah and the great flood in the book of Genesis in the Bible.
“I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth,” it reads in the New International Version of the Bible. “I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds. I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.”