Op-Ed Submitted

During the week of July 16-22, 2023, I spent nearly 30 hours in a homemade booth set up on our driveway. The reason?: To seek signatures of those passing by our home on what’s termed the “Save Utah’s Flag Initiative” as they entered the park across the street for city festivities. Some will call this foolishness, criticize, and seek to cancel my expression here. Others will admire the dedication to a cause.

Utah has a state flag that holds significant and rich unifying symbolism that embodies its history and heritage. It has been uniting us as a community for over 110 years. It’s majestic and beautiful. Its royal blue color stands out, simultaneously displaying its loyalty to us and calling for loyalty from us.

Now, voices declare that it doesn’t look good on a hat or T-shirt, that now after 110 years of service it looks like other state flags and is nothing more than an “S.O.B.” (“seal on a bedsheet”), that it’s too hard for a grade-school students to draw, and/or, that it doesn’t unify us — that it doesn’t represent all Utahns. From what I can gather, their objections to it are solely based on its age, and content. I haven’t heard a legitimate argument as to how our current state flag fails to represent all Utahns. Flags, seals, and other symbols unite those that desire to be united by them: Unity comes from a state of mind, heart, and allegiance within each of us.

George Orwell once penned, “The most effective way to destroy a people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”

Utah’s rich, yet complex, heritage isn’t derived from current social clicks, norms, or people living here — it began over 180 years ago. And yet, oddly enough, everyone now living in Utah shares in its richness.

I was fortunate enough to run the Deseret News Marathon this past July 24th. The pioneer heritage of this course made it a very special event for me personally. Starting at Big Mountain, down through East Canyon, up over Little Mountain summit, and down through Emigration Canyon is the exact route the “Mormon” pioneers took to enter the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, and until 1861. From a personal heritage standpoint, I had ancestors who travelled over this same route. So, to me it was an opportunity to honor them for their sacrifice, which was not just for themselves, but for every person or descendant who came after them.

It should never be forgotten that those of the religion called “Mormons” in their day, didn’t come to “Utah,” they came to a barren wasteland in Mexico to leave the United States. They came here to escape government-led, or supported, mobs, disenfranchisement, beatings, murders, arsons, property seizures, and an order for their utter extermination. In 1838, my 4th Great Grandfather, Thomas McBride was murdered and then hacked to pieces with a corn scythe blade during a government assisted massacre on a small settlement then known as Haun’s Mill, in Missouri. He was 62 years old. He had surrendered his musket to a militiaman who immediately killed him with it. Despite many appeals to state and federal government officials, there was no protection for them from religious persecution.

Yet, it was from these people who were fleeing government atrocities against them that the “Mormon Battalion” was formed in 1846 as part of the US Army during the war with Mexico. It remains the only religion based, and named, battalion in US Army history.

As the soldiers of the battalion marched south to war, the rest continued on to the Salt Lake Valley and immediately set about turning their Mexican wasteland into a thriving territory which they named, “Deseret,” meaning Honeybee, with their industry and labor. It wasn’t easy at first, the ground was hard-baked and unforgiving to their plows, but the Sego Lily kept them alive. Truly, due to their industry the desert began to blossom like a rose.

Before being disbanded in 1847, the Mormon Battalion had marched about 2000 miles, and was instrumental in establishing: The first roadway/trail from the Missouri River to the southwest coast; Fort Moore in what is now Los Angeles, CA; and, what we know now as “Old Town,” in San Diego, CA (which is heralded as the “birthplace of California”). After disbanding, many headed back to the Territory of Deseret to reunite with their families, and while traveling they cut roads through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to help other immigrants travel.

In 1849, right after the war with Mexico ended, the Territory of Deseret first petitioned for statehood. Instead of granting statehood, on September 9, 1850, the Territory of Deseret was reduced in size and became the Territory of Utah through an act of the US Congress. Brigham Young was appointed by US President Millard Fillmore to be its first Governor. Had statehood been granted, it would have been the 30th, or 31st, state in the union. Interestingly, the new Territory of Utah created a flag. And just as our current state flag, the Territory’s beautiful flag embodied its history and heritage to that time.

Within 6 years, US President James Buchanan declared war on the Mormons and sent an army to quash a falsely reported “Mormon rebellion.” Johnston’s army arrived in the valley in 1857, but it didn’t find any rebellion. There never was a rebellion, and a peaceful transfer of civil government had occurred before his army’s arrival. History refers to these events as the “Mormon War” and also “Buchanan’s Blunder.”

For 18 months in 1860-61, Mormons and non-Mormons served as riders and station attendants for the Pony Express. The route for riders into the Salt Lake Valley was the same as used by the Mormon Pioneers from 1847-1861.

In 1861, the coast-to-coast telegraph was completed in Salt Lake City. In celebration, Brigham Young sent the first telegram to the owners of the Western Union Telegraph Company. Acting Territorial Governor Frank Fuller then sent a telegraph to US President Abraham Lincoln which said in part, “To the President of the United States: Utah, whose citizens strenuously resist all imputations of disloyalty, …”

In 1868, a few thousand Mormons worked with the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads to finish about the last 250 miles of the transcontinental railroad in the Territory. They worked alongside a multitude of other men who were non-Mormons to complete the project. It was completed in May of 1869 at Promontory Point, Territory of Utah.

It’s estimated that by 1869, about 60-70,000 Mormon immigrants had arrived in the Territory. They walked, pushed and pulled handcarts, or rode in wagons, for months to cross the plains. About 1900 died on the trail b/t 1847-1868. This migration is still viewed as the largest US religious migration in modern history.

While this monumental migration was occurring, many non-Mormons also settled in the valley. With them they brought their various religious faiths. As a result, many religious congregations were established and added to Utah’s history, heritage of faith, and industry before statehood:
1854, the Jewish faith;
1859, Priests of the Catholic Church ministered to US Army soldiers in the Territory, but did not remain in the Territory;
1865, The First Congregational Church;
1866, the Catholic Church;
1867, the Episcopal Church;
1869, the Methodist Church;
1871, the Baptist and Presbyterian Churches;
1879, the Church of Christ; and,
1891, the Christian Scientists faith. (Deseret News Article)
These faithful ministers and parishioners were pioneers in their own right, and their contributions to the building of the Territory of Utah should not be discounted, nor forgotten.

In 1856, 1862, 1872, 1882, and 1887, the Territory of Utah made separate petitions for statehood. All the petitions were denied or referred to a committee where no action was taken on them. This shameful government conduct was a continuous stream of religious persecution of the Mormon faith. But this was not all. Continuing its anti-Mormon persecution, in 1882 and 1887, the US Congress passed two laws which specifically targeted the Mormon faith and church. These laws clearly violated their patent First Amendment Rights to freedom of conscience and religious worship. About 1300 members, including leaders, of the Mormon church were imprisoned for their beliefs, the Mormon Church was disincorporated as a legal institution and church property was seized to force compliance with these laws. These laws were, unbelievably, upheld in 1890 by the US Supreme Court.

Then, after 47 years, seven total petitions for statehood, total concession by the majority of people of the Territory because of continued religious persecution by those in the US Congress, and further downsizing of the Territory to keep Nevada silver deposits, and Fort Bridger, out of the “hands of the Mormons,” in 1896 the 45th state was born. But it was not the “State of Deseret” as petitioned by the people of the Territory in 1849 — the State of Utah was born.

Our first state flag was created in 1903. In it we see the symbols which tell this marvelous history, and it includes the US flag despite the government’s unconstitutional actions against its people. The flag placed in service in 1911, and formally adopted in 1913 brought color and greater definition and boldness to the symbols which set forth the rich heritage it honors– that we honor.

Finally, a tid-bit from my own history. For about 40 years, I was honored to serve in a profession in which I either wore or carried a badge. For nearly 27 of those years, the badge I served with had our state seal in the center of it. And to my knowledge, a majority of law enforcement officials in this state still wear, or carry, such a badge, and are proud to do so. To me, our flag is a beacon to all of our heritage, culture, and history. With the exception of having a base color of royal blue, as others do, there isn’t another flag, of any state, that’s like it in appearance, or patriotic message.

Yet now, despite all the symbolism of our history and heritage displayed in the state flag, we’re engaged in a fight with cancel culture from a minority group of people (which includes legislators, our chief executive, a flag company which is in it for profit and to push its own national agenda, and vexillologists), who want to diminish, if not all out erase, the history, culture, and heritage of this great state. It seems they would rather have a “logo-flag” (which in my view doesn’t look good on a hat), then a state flag which memorializes the state’s history and heritage. Now, they will tell you the new flag is not intended, in any way, to diminish Utah’s heritage, but the proof is in the pudding. Anytime you delete specific emblems from a symbol which represents the heritage of a people, the people lose their identity. So, what patent emblems of heritage and history do we lose from our current state flag?:

The Eagle – the symbol of strength in protecting and defending our freedoms and nation in times of peace or war;
The Six Arrows – representing the Native American tribes residing in the Territory when the Mormon pioneers arrived;
The US Flags – representing Utah’s loyalty to, and support for, the United States and the US Constitution;
The Shield – representing our unity in a common defense for all Utahns;
The Sego Lily flowers – the staff of life for the early pioneers which became the State Flower;
The Honeybees – representing the personal labor, dedication, and sacrifice of each individual who sought to build their lives, families, religions, and fortunes in the wasteland of the Salt Lake Valley;
An Active Beehive – representing continued hard work and industry;
“Industry” – the overarching mantra representing the character, work ethic, and determination of the Utah people, and our State Motto;
“1847” – the year in which the Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley and began making the wasteland blossom as the rose;
“1896” – the year statehood was finally granted, after 47 years of petitions by the people of the Territory;
“Utah” – the name given to this great state which was drawn from the Native American tribe known as “Utes;” and,
The Blue Color – an emblem of loyalty to us and calling for loyalty from us.

What emblems are we told exist in the new flag?:

A Blue Segment – representing Utah’s skies and symbolizing faith;
A White Segment – representing Utah’s snowy mountains and peace, with the mountain peaks symbolizing Utah’s indigenous peoples;
A Gold Hexagon – symbolizing the strength of Utah’s people;
A Beehive – symbolizing industry, community, and the year 1847, the year in which pioneers first settled Utah;
A Five-Pointed Star – symbolizing hope and the year 1896, the year in which Utah was admitted to statehood; and,
A Red Segment – representing the red rocks of Southern Utah and symbolizing perseverance and the state’s unique landscapes. (Source: SB 31.)

As I proffered previously, anytime you delete specific emblems from a symbol which represents the heritage of a people, the people lose their identity. The new flag doesn’t just remove one or two emblems, it removes all the emblems of our heritage and history. Now some will argue with my statement. They’ll say that the beehive was left in the new flag. I hold to my statement that all the emblems were removed because in our state flag is an “active” beehive. What’s in the new flag is clearly an “inactive” beehive.

We further lose our heritage and unity in the new flag as its major proponent, social groups, and a flag company, openly support ravaging modifications of it to adapt it to their own practices, ideologies and agendas.

My support for maintaining our current flag is not just based on the loss of emblems and symbols. It’s also based on how the legislature effectively disenfranchised the people and silenced their voice in the matter. This should be very vexing to all Utahns as from the beginning, the flag selection issue was to be ultimately decided by a vote of the people according to Representative Stephen Handy.

In 2021, Representative Handy, who was a primary proponent for a new flag and serves as the co-chair of the selection task force told ABC4.com: “We’d like to put it on the 2022 ballot to let the people vote. We’re still figuring this out if we’re going to give them a choice of three designs and it might just be we keep the old flag,” Rep. Handy explains. . . . Right now we’re going to expand the deadline and really be deliberative about it for the next year and a half and get this on the ballot in November of 2022[.]”

So, if from the beginning this flag selection process was to end with a vote of the people, why was it changed to just a vote of the legislature? Why has the legislature forced the people to gather signatures on a referendum, and now an initiative, when neither was necessary? Section 20A-7-103 of the Utah Code grants the legislature the power to place this  proposition on a general ballot. Will it happen? I believe they should do so, and put an end to our disenfranchisement on the issue. I believe the people of this great state have the right to vote on the flag that will represent them to other states, the nation, and the world. Utahns were purposely cut out of the selection process and their voices quashed. The state flag doesn’t just represent the legislature or governor, it represents all Utahns.

Now, in March of 2024, Utah will have two state flags: Not one as other states, but two. As a result, neither of these flags will carry the intrinsic power to fully unite us as a people or state. This division was evident when the divisive flag bill (SB 31) was passed out of the legislature on a combined total of 14 votes in the House and Senate. Governor Cox thought a redesign of the state flag would bring the people together. Yet in an interview with the Wall Street Journal in May 2023, he told the reporter, “I should have known better.” And so, in five short months, we’ll formally be a divided state, and this division among us will live on, in perpetuity. I submit that if we can’t be united under the flag that has served us for over 110 years, it’s certain we’ll not be united under the new flag either.

We, you and I, have the power in our hands to stop this. We the people must do so via the initiative, however, the State Legislature can take action on its own to (1) get the issue on a general ballot, or (2) directly repeal the divisive flag bill and reestablish this state upon the flag which has served us for 110 years. Governor Cox can also assist in stopping this division by calling a special session of the legislature to address the issue. They should  accomplish this before an estimated total of $2.5 Million additional taxpayer dollars, not including the $500,000 which has already been spent, are expended to purchase all the flags, etc., necessary to effectuate the conversation to the new flag.

I urge every registered voter to sign the initiative. There are volunteers in each county that can assist you to do so. Look around at a city or county activity and you’ll probably find them in a booth and out gathering signatures, or at one of your local stores. You can also visit https://www.restoreutahsflag.com and find information on where you can sign the petition. Also, contact your legislators. Let your legislators know in a courteous, yet matter-of-fact way, that you desire he/she, either let the people’s voice be heard in a general election, or that they directly repeal Senate Bill 31 (the divisive flag bill) before it takes effect on March 9, 2024. They can do so either in a special session, or in the 2024 general session. Finally, please contact the governor’s office, and in a fashion similar to your contact with your legislators, request he call a special session to address the issue of getting the proposition on a general ballot for a vote of the people, or seek the direct repeal of Senate Bill 31.

Curtis Larson
American Fork, Utah

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