I first wrote about the city of Glencoe, Alabama more than two years ago because of a Christian flag that was hanging outside City Hall. It had been there for more than two decades, not that that made it acceptable, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to Mayor Charles Gilchrist informing him of the problem and urging him to take the flag down before they had to get courts involved. (FFRF was presumably acting on behalf of a citizen who noticed the problem.)
The flag eventually came down, but not with the support of the mayor. Gilchrist told the media that the only reason he succumbed to FFRF’s demands was to avoid a lawsuit:
Gilchrist says the city attorney warned about another town that was sued over a similar matter. That town had to play $500,000 in damages plus $50,000 in legal fees.
“That would just about ruin us,” said Gilchrist, by phone Friday night. “That’s what they do, they pick on these smaller towns that can’t defend ourselves.”
“That town” was sued because it was breaking the law, received warnings, did nothing, and lost the legal battle. Gilchrist could have easily taken down his Christian flag, paid nothing, and upheld the law. He did that, but not before whining about the rules.
It was also misleading to argue FFRF was picking on his town because it couldn’t defend itself. FFRF doesn’t make money from the cases they pursue (and when they do, it’s only to cover legal costs), and they don’t go after small towns specifically (hell, they’ve taken on the government, too).
FFRF pursued this case because Gilchrist was breaking the law. It’s as simple as that.
But that was all two years ago. The reason I’m bringing it up now is because Gilchrist still hasn’t gotten over it. Earlier this month, he woke up one morning to get to work installing another Christian flag. The Washington Post‘s Stephanie McCrummen explains:
[Gilchrist] parked his truck, got a shovel out of the back, and walked over to a patch of grass where two small orange flags marked a hole in the ground. He began digging in the frosted dirt.
He tossed aside a rock. He tossed aside a chunk of dirt. He looked at the hole and then at what was going in it: a 50-foot flagpole with a silver cross on the top, now lying in the grass. That was his plan, to erect that flagpole adjacent to City Hall, and to eventually raise a Christian flag high over the town for everyone to see — a red cross on it for the blood of Jesus, a white field for purity and a blue square for the waters of baptism.
All of this might be fine if the mayor is doing this on private land, on his own time. But it’s clear Gilchrist is playing up the ambiguity. The spot where he planted his flag? It’s right next to City Hall, albeit on a church’s property. In fact, it appears as if it’s erected by the city given its proximity to the other flags. But that’s still legal, right?
Not necessarily, says FFRF. Not if the intention is to make people think the city put it up.
FFRF’s letter to the city’s legal counsel raises two concerns with Gilchrist’s actions. First, they might create a constitutional problem if the mayor is using city resources to install this pole and raise the Christian flag. Second, when it comes to state-church law, appearances matter. FFRF’s open records request, submitted with the letter, will help determine whether or not the mayor has overstepped.
The Post article makes it appear that it is the mayor’s plan to raise the Christian flag on church property next door to City Hall, that he dug the hole, that he directed the placement of the new flagpole, and that he stored the flag to be hoisted in his office in City Hall. It also appears as though Gilchrist selected the spot for the new flagpole, which he chose because the flag will seem to be flying over city hall even if the flagpole is technically over church property. Gilchrist mused over in the story about which elected officials he will invite to his flag-raising ceremony, adding to the appearance of city endorsement.
“This story certainly gives the impression that the mayor is working to circumvent the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which the Supreme Court has said time and again ‘mandates government neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion,'” FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew Seidel, a constitutional attorney, writes to the city of Glencoe’s legal counsel.
The flag doesn’t have to come down, per se, but given the confusion it might create, the city needs to make it clear to the viewing public that it’s not a city structure (by putting a fence around it, for example, or a very clear disclaimer). There’s also the question of how the church got that public land in the first place, which is what the open records request is all about.
Gilchrist isn’t doing himself any favors by pretending to be a Christian martyr like his hero Roy Moore. By portraying himself, to a reporter, as the savior of Christianity in his community, he’s making it more likely that taxpayers will have to foot the bill for an expensive lawsuit, and it’s all because he can’t keep his mouth shut about his efforts to break the law by arguably using government resources to promote Christianity.