WASHINGTON -- Leaders in Dent County, Missouri, are no longer planning to lower flags at the county courthouse to “mourn” the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage, thanks to an overwhelming backlash from county residents.
As first reported by the county’s main newspaper, The Salem News, the county commission will hold a special session Tuesday or Wednesday to cancel the order. On Monday, the three-member commission voted unanimously to lower the flags at the county’s courthouse to “below half-staff” for a one-year period of “mourning” following the recent Supreme Court decision that authorized gay marriage nationwide.
Residents quickly mobilized to protest the commission’s actions.
Members of the military opposed the commission’s measure because it violates flag protocol. Presiding Commissioner Darrell Skiles told The Salem News that military members in the county personally reached out to him with their concerns. According to the U.S. Flag Code, American flags can only be lowered to half-staff to honor veterans or fallen soldiers, to memorialize government leaders, to observe designated holidays or when ordered by the governor or the president.
Alex Sellers, a resident of Salem, the county seat, created an online petition Monday in opposition to the commission’s order, on behalf of what he called “the Organization for Reasonableness of Dent County, MO.” By Tuesday morning, Sellers' petition had accumulated more than 1,000 signatures. He said he was surprised by how quickly the commission responded to the criticism.
“I thought it would take at least until the next commissioners’ meeting," Sellers told The Huffington Post. "I thought it might go up to that point, but I’m really relieved that it worked out the way it did."
Sellers said that neither Skiles nor the other commissioners had contacted him personally, so it was unclear whether their reversal was a direct result of his petition. However, Sellers said that soon after he posted the petition, he received numerous responses from fellow concerned citizens via phone and Facebook.
Skiles and the two other commissioners, all Republicans, voted Monday to lower the flags after Skiles penned a letter in protest of the Supreme Court decision, which he characterized as “blatant judicial overreach.”
“All who see these flags at this lowered position [will] be reminded of this despicable Supreme Court travesty," Skiles wrote, adding that the decision amounted to the court’s "stamp of approval of what God speaks of as an abomination."
Sellers saw the news on Facebook and initially thought it was “satire.” “I thought it couldn’t be a real thing,” he said. “Even with where I live... I understand some of the stereotypes in the area, and they’re not really unfounded, but I still thought, ‘This can’t really be a real thing.’”
But once he had confirmed the news was real, he immediately created a petition to denounce the commission's actions.
“I knew that this would something that would get latched onto, and deservedly so. It’s very wrong,” said Sellers. “I knew what was going to happen, but I wanted to get a local voice out there really quickly as a source of opposition to this, so immediately going into this story, there [would be] two sides."
"It was really quick," he added. "There wasn’t much thought. I just wanted to get it out there, to show that there’s another side to rural America [and] our town specifically. I don’t like my town being represented this way.”
In the petition, Sellers wrote that even though the commissioners oppose gay marriage, “it is inappropriate for them to take action such as that described which projects their opinions as those of the entire community.”
He also admonished the commissioners for equating same-sex marriage with the kinds of grave tragedies that usually result in a flag being lowered.
“The act of lowering the American flag from full height has long been a way for communities to mourn local and national tragedies,” he wrote. “To compare the Supreme Court ruling on homosexual marriage rights to those tragedies in any way is an insult to both the tragedies that have been previously mourned in this manner and the basic principles of government under which the United States operates that led to this court decision, not to mention those personally affected by the ruling.”
Other community members, including LGBT residents, also responded to the commission in the local press and on social media. Jacob Wilson, a gay alumnus of Salem High School, has established a scholarship fund to support LGBT students and allies.
Jimmy Cotner, a Navy veteran, and his husband, Gary, were the first gay couple to receive a marriage license in Dent County. Cotner told The Salem News that he was “more offended as a veteran than a gay man at what they were doing."
"To desecrate the flag of our country and those who fought and died for it is disgusting," Cotner told the paper. "I am more hurt they are using our flag as an instrument of hate than I am to be a victim of that hate, and to think it’s just because they don’t like gay people such as myself.”
Salem Mayor Jay Tune expressed concern over the commission’s actions in a Facebook post Tuesday, though he did not directly condemn them.
“I do feel the County Commission, by their action, are not representing the entire populace of the County, they are opening themselves up for lawsuits, i.e. separation of Church and State, and also litigation from gay rights groups,” Tune wrote.
While Sellers is pleased that the commission acted quickly to reverse its decision, he said he suspects it had more to do with the objections of military members and less to do with a desire to show respect for LGBT people.
“Their interest for rescinding has so far mainly focused around the patriotic use of the flag rather than gay marriage, which I get is better than nothing,” he said. “But even in their response, I think there’s still some political pandering going on. They don’t feel like they can come out and support gay marriage, but found this other out to change their decision and stop most of the backlash.”
HuffPost called the commission's office multiple times seeking comment for this story, but no one picked up the phone and the office does not appear to have a voice mail.