Utah’s flag feud: Effort to overturn new flag stalls in Legislature as opponents take the fight to federal court

A legislative committee did not advance a bill to overturn last year’s bill authorizing a new Utah flag.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, makes a comment on HB 436, about Utah flag amendments, during a committee meeting talking , at the Capitol, on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024.

A legislative committee was not in the mood to give opponents of Utah’s new state flag another lifeline in their continuing quixotic quest to overturn the adoption of the new banner on Thursday. As a last resort, they’re turning to federal court.

After more than an hour of debate and public comment, the House Economic Development and Workforce Services committee punted on HB436, sponsored by Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding. Lyman’s bill aimed to restore the traditional historical state flag as the only official flag, nixing the modern redesign adopted by the Legislature last year. Any future change to the flag would not be up to lawmakers but subject to a vote of the people.

“This is not about do you like the new flag, or do you like the old flag. This is about process. It’s about fairness,” Lyman, who is running for governor this year, said. “There are a group of people who feel like the old flag was taken away from them without a voice. And we feel like this is the people’s bill, and the people should be able to decide on flags going forward.”

While Lyman’s bill is not officially dead for this session, it is in legislative hospice. There’s a chance the committee could bring it back for another hearing, but that’s unlikely. Lyman could try a long-shot parliamentary gambit to bring his bill directly to the House floor, but that would require support from a majority of his colleagues. Given Thursday’s outcome, it isn’t easy to see where he might find enough votes to circumvent the committee decision.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, makes a comment on HB 436, about Utah flag amendments, during a committee meeting talking , at the Capitol, on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024.

Rep. Melissa Garff-Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, scolded anti-flag activists for using bullying tactics and intimidation against those who disagreed with them.

“Last year, there were some who were calling legislators ‘public enemy number one’ for supporting the new flag. I’m here to say we have a lot more severe public enemies than a symbol,” Ballard said. “I would love for you to channel your energy into how we can preserve our principles and the values that are important to us and work together against the real threats that we have.”

Jack Norton echoed Ballard’s complaint, detailing aggressive online bullying at the hands of those who want to get rid of the new state flag.

“I’ve been belittled. I’ve been mocked. I’ve been called a communist. I’ve been called ‘woke.’ I’ve even been accused of being a burner account for Sen. Dan McCay (the sponsor of last year’s flag change legislation),” Norton said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jack Norton makes a comment during the public comment period speaking against HB 436, Utah flag amendments, at the Capitol, on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024.

Opponents have struggled mightily to get the public to care about which flag happens to fly as Utah’s sigil. After a failed referendum to overturn the Legislature’s decision, they forged ahead with a ballot initiative similar to Lyman’s bill. That initiative effort appears to be on the precipice of failure as organizers are more than 50,000 signatures short of the minimum needed to qualify for November’s ballot with less than a week remaining before the Feb. 15 deadline.

In a tacit admission that failure is imminent, organizers sent a letter to Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson asking that she unilaterally extend the timeline for gathering signatures by more than five months. They also requested that she ignore several laws regarding signature gathering and accept signature packets submitted after deadlines.

Henderson said their request was unreasonable in her response to the group, which was shared with The Salt Lake Tribune.

“State statute does not allow me the enforcement discretion you are seeking. I have no authority to waive or modify these laws and am obligated to apply them uniformly,” Henderson wrote.

Henderson did order her staff to audit the signature packets that had been rejected so far. That examination found some packets that had been rejected improperly, but also that the group had possibly engaged in subterfuge to get signatures accepted that were not eligible.

“These alterations appeared to be an effort to disguise the date of the initial signatures in the packets,” Henderson wrote.

Unwilling to concede defeat, the initiative organizers filed a lawsuit in federal court that claimed Utah’s laws governing signature gathering for ballot initiatives were too restrictive and violated the U.S. and Utah State Constitutions. They’re requesting an extension to the signature gathering deadline until July 8.

The suit argues regulations on paid signature gatherers for ballot initiatives are so restrictive that they must be overturned on constitutional grounds. Petition circulators for citizen initiatives can only be paid hourly rather than per signature. They must also be Utah residents and wear a nametag indicating they’re being compensated for collecting signatures. There are no such requirements for paid signature gathering for political candidates.