Utah lawmakers to vote on new state flag | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

Utah lawmakers to vote on new state flag 

A four-year effort to retire the state's "S.O.B." banner nears its end.

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When Layton Republican Rep. Steve Handy was approached years ago by constituents about updating the Utah state flag, they began with a simple question: What did he think of the current one?

"My answer was 'I don't think anything about it'," Handy recalled. "It's just there."

Utah's current flag is a busy hodgepodge of state and national imagery, largely consisting of the Utah State Seal—a beehive, shield, arrows, a bald eagle, twin U.S. flags, sego lilies and the numbers "1896" and "1847"—emblazoned upon a blue field. The design is virtually indistinguishable at a distance (like, say, the bottom of a flag pole?) from dozens of other state flags, giving birth to the pejorative phrase "Seal on a Bedsheet"—or "S.O.B."—from a vocal cohort of flag enthusiasts.

Handy's response (that the flag is merely there) is similar to what most Utahns are likely to say when pressed on the Beehive State's flag—or at least what they would say until they find out it is (potentially) about to change. Because as Handy learned up close in the four years since proposing a state flag task force to consider new designs, the sure-fire way to get people to care deeply about their state flag is to suggest it needs improvement.

"It was surprising to me, the immediate pushback and resistance," Handy said. "It just goes to show you that human beings don't like change."

The task force Handy created recently completed its work, which included multiple rounds of public surveys to first identify the symbols, colors and concepts broadly prioritized by Utahns, then to solicit design proposals from amateur "vexillologists"—those who study flags—and finally to collect feedback on roughly two dozen design candidates. Task force staff then constructed a final design, which was adopted by the panel's members—including Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Diedre Henderson—and sent to the Legislature for their consideration.

The new flag design evokes the traditional version, with a central, hexagonal space containing a simplified beehive and an 8-pointed star representing the state's federally recognized Indigenous tribes. Around the hexagon, a blue sky lies above the zig-zag peaks of a snowy white mountain range, with a red rock canyon along the flag's lower third.

"Without creating a flag-by-committee, we've tried to be really methodical and conscientious," Handy said. "It will take time. It will take some years for people to embrace this."

In November, an interim committee narrowly supported legislation formally adopting the new flag, placing the bill on an accelerated—but far from guaranteed—path ahead of the legislative session in January.

"The momentum is certainly there," said Handy who, after the 2022 elections, will not be in the chamber to carry the bill across the finish line. "The challenge will be in the House, needing 38 votes."

But the proposal is likely to benefit from bipartisan support. Flag design can hardly be described as a liberal or conservative issue, although opponents have attempted to paint the effort as an example of "cancel culture" and the "woke mob" coming for the state's history of Latter-day Saint settlement.

Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-West Valley City, voted against the initial legislation starting the redesign process. But at the final task force meeting, she wore a T-shirt adapted from the new design and credited the robust public engagement process with changing her mind.

"Its not about denying history—it's engaging people so they actually understand our history," Weight said. "This is such a different process and that is the reason I can wear this shirt today and support this legislation."

Public input had little—if any—bearing on the design of the original flag. Created around the time of statehood, Handy said Utah's leaders were overtly angling for support at the federal level and loaded the seal and flag with American iconography in an attempt to demonstrate their patriotism and commitment to the country.

"They threw everything they could think of into that flag," he said. "I think one of the great parts of this story is that this is the first time Utahns have had an opportunity to weigh in on what the symbol of their state should be."

But many lawmakers remain unimpressed. During committee questioning, the question of "woke" censorship was repeatedly raised, while Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, noted that he was met with consistent opposition to updating the flag during his recent reelection campaign.

"I have knocked many, many doors and talked to many people in the last few months," he said, "and not one is supportive of this."

New flag advocates argue that the failure of Utah's current design is evident in its lack of adoption and use by the general public.

In states like Colorado, Arizona and Texas, and in cities like Chicago and Washington, D.C., flag imagery plays a near-constant role in public life, from its placement on apparel and accessories by private citizens to the use of its colors and design in spaces like transit and parks.

But in the absence of compelling public symbols, supporters argue, that community space is ceded to private entities like sports teams and other factional group identities. (Similar arguments motivated Salt Lake City to update its flag design in 2020).

"There are so many things that divide us," Handy said. "Can we now, please, use a symbol that unites us?"

Chance Hammock, one of the constituents who first brought the issue of a new flag to Handy's attention, said he's pleased with the final product of the task force. "I love it. I think they did a great job," Hammock said. "When this all started, I was really worried about getting a flag [that looks like it was] designed by committee and ending up with something similar to or even worse than what we have now. My fears have been unfounded."

Hammock said he's optimistic about the flag's potential to engender pride as a shared symbol. He's seen the power of good flags in our neighboring states—he cites the Four Corners National Monument site as a particularly impressive showcase—and believes the skeptics will come around in time.

"Utah is awesome, it's distinct," he said. "We deserve an awesome and distinctly Utah flag."

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