A motion to fly the Betsy Ross and Gadsen (Don’t Tread on Me) flags, in addition to the U.S. flag, along Water Street for a Constitution Week event being organized by the Winneshiek County Republican Party failed on a tie vote during Tuesday night’s Decorah City Council meeting.
Council members Randy Schissel, Andy Carlson and Ross Hadley voted in favor of the motion, while Council members Emily Neal, Steve Luse and Johanna Bergan voted against it. Council member Kirk Johnson was absent.
Winneshiek County Republican Chair Tom Hansen’s special event application for a Constitution Week event planned for 2-4 p.m. Friday, Sept 20, at Water Street park included the request to fly the historic flags from city flag poles along Water Street.
While they won’t be able to fly the flags on Water Street, Republicans are still planning to hold the event at the park, but the exact date of the event is still being determined.
Although she said she didn’t believe it was the applicants’ intent, Neal said the Gadsen (Don’t Tread on Me) flag and the Betsy Ross flag have been used in current times as symbols of white supremacy and white nationalism.
“These are two flags controversial in our country and embroiled in lawsuits dealing with racism,” Neal said.
Council member Randy Schissel, acting as mayor pro-tem in the absence of Mayor Lorraine Borowski, said if that’s the way the flags are looked at, schools have lost the ability to teach students about the country’s history.

‘Out of context’
Hansen said Betsy Ross was an abolitionist and that Neal shouldn’t take things “out of context.” He said President Barack Obama had two Betsy Ross flags on his inauguration stage.
“For you to say it’s a symbol of racism and slavery is just ridiculous,” Hansen said.
He said the Gadsen flag was the first flag of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marines. Hansen said the flags were chosen as the most recognizable symbols of the country’s history around the time of the signing of the constitution.
“The best way to quit taking them out of context is to explain them and get rid of all the other misinformation around them,” he said.
Decorah High School student Jacob Voight, who is helping to organize the event, said he wanted to have it in conjunction with Decorah High School’s recognition of Constitution Week.
Because Luther College flags will be flown the weekend of Sept. 20 for Luther’s family weekend, Schissel suggested the Republicans schedule their celebration for Tuesday, Sept. 17, the same day as the high school’s constitution event. Hansen and Voight were agreeable to adjusting the date.
Voight said he wanted the celebration to be as “bipartisan as possible.”
Bergan said the city carries the weight of the message flags flown on the city’s street poles on Water Street represent. She said it would be “most appropriate” to fly the current American flag.

Other flags
Neal said there are many other historical flags the Republicans could have chosen for their event. The Gadsen flag and Betsy Ross flags are often flown at Ku Klux Klan and white national events, she said.
Neal said she agreed with Hansen that things can be taken out of context.
“When you hang a flag people see many different things. I’d hate to fly a flag representing white nationalism in Decorah,” Neal said.
She suggested the high school would be the “perfect place” to have a discussion about the flags.
Hansen said the flags should not be “hidden” in a school, but displayed in public so people can ask questions about them.

Likes idea
Carlson said he liked Voight’s idea of inviting Democrats to the Constitution Day event.
“I understand anything can be twisted. I believe there is no subversive meaning (to flying the Betsy Ross and Gadsen flags) to my knowledge. Jacob invites bipartisanship. It sounds like a cool event,” Carlson said.
“If we want to promote what Decorah is about what is better than promoting the constitution – it’s what this nation is founded upon – equality and justice. Is that not what Decorah is about?” Hansen asked.
“The best way to do that is to fly the American flag,” Bergan said.

Update policy
The city has been reviewing its policy for flying flags along Water Street for special events.
“I implore the Council to get back to this flag policy and get it decided, get it finalized so we can move on with these requests,” City Manager Chad Bird said in his report to the Council at the end of Tuesday’s meeting.
He said he agreed with Schissel the policy should allow flags the city has been flying consistently: The American flag, Nordic Fest flags, the Luther College flag and the Decorah High School flag.
“That would cut a lot of the clutter,” Bird said.