Southborough rejects petition to limit flags at Old Burial Ground

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Southborough rejects petition to limit flags at Old Burial Ground
One of the flags at the Old Burial Ground is this Gadsden Flag. (Photo/Laura Hayes)

SOUTHBOROUGH – Town Meeting voters rejected a citizen’s petition seeking to limit the placement of flags at the Old Burial Ground to the American flag Oct. 13.

The article was petitioned by Debbie DeMuria and Rebecca Deans-Rowe.

“The intent of this article is to honor all who are buried there – only a small percentage of which are veterans, I think six to eight percent — and preserve the historic integrity of this site,” DeMuria said.

Citizen’s petition

There are six flags flying in the Old Burial Ground in addition to the American flag – the Tree Flag, Moultrie Flag, Bunker Hill Flag, Continental Flag, 1st Continental Regiment Flag and the Gadsden Flag which reads “Don’t Treat on Me.”

According to MySouthborough, the Historical Commission has asked the Select Board to consider replacing some of the flags in the Old Burial Ground in March 2021.

DeMuria said she chose to not get involved at that time, but decided to get involved following a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision and contact town leaders.

Southborough rejects petition to limit flags at Old Burial Ground
Debbie DeMuria speaks during Town Meeting (Photo/Laura Hayes)

In Shurtleff v. City of Boston, Harold Shurtleff had asked to raise a Christian flag on the City Hall Plaza as part of a ceremony. The group was later not allowed to raise their flag, though the city had allowed organizations to raise flags in the past.

Earlier this year, the court concluded that Boston had violated their free speech rights.

“What Shurtleff said is that without a municipal flag policy, the city is creating a public forum for speech and cannot control what is being said,” DeMuria said. “They also said that the city cannot deny some flags while allowing others.”

She said that Southborough needed a flag policy.

“The immediate need I see is in the Old Burial Ground,” DeMuria said. “We have some flags that are flying there. Others can simply put up flags as well. I don’t believe they’ve ever been given an agreement to do that, but they’ve also not been told to take them town.

“That opens the door to other private groups that want to start putting up their flags and using this as a public forum for free speech,” she said.

Her article asked Town Meeting to vote to request that the Select Board restrict the placement of flags to the American flag that would be flown on a single, permanent pole.

American Legion Commander Dan Kolenda and Veterans’ Grave Officer Stephen Whynot spoke against the petition. Kolenda said that he, Whynot and other veterans saw it as an effort to remove the Gadsden flag.

Southborough rejects petition to limit flags at Old Burial Ground
Dan Kolenda speaks during Town Meeting. (Photo/Laura Hayes)

“While that flag along with hundreds of others was used by some misguided individuals at the U.S. Capitol riots on Jan. 6, 2021, that does not negate their historical significance,” Kolenda said.

Kolenda said the number of flags has remained “consistent” for decades at the Old Burial Ground.

As Veterans’ Grave Officer, Whynot said he took it as his responsibility “to ensure that those guys that fought in that war and helped to create this town were honored.”

Kolenda said the Supreme Court decision has “nothing to do with the Town of Southborough.”

“Southborough has no practice of routinely flying hundreds of various flags and accepting applications from any private group to do so,” he said.

Ultimately, Town Meeting rejected the petition.

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