New state flag bill passes in Utah Senate, moves to House

Proposed design for Utah's new state flag, as designated in SB31, first substitute, passed by the state Senate in Salt Lake City, Utah on Jan. 30, 2023 | Image courtesy of Utah State Legislature, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Utah lawmakers have moved another step closer toward designating a new official state flag.

Senate Bill 31, titled State Flag Amendments, passed in the Utah Senate on its third reading Monday by a vote of 17-10, with two members absent or not voting. It now moves to the House for further action.

Twenty semifinal designs for a proposed Utah state flag were installed in a temporary display in Cedar City on Sept. 22, 2022 | File photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

The measure, which is being sponsored by Sen. Dan McCay (R-Salt Lake City), would create a new state flag while designating the current state flag as the “ceremonial” flag while providing for both to be displayed.

The version passed on Monday had one slight change from the one that had been voted on the previous week: the white star below the beehive is now a five-pointed star instead of an eight-pointed star.

McCay explained the reason for the change during Monday’s Senate floor discussion.

McCay said that a Native American acquaintance had told him the eight-pointed star, when observed from a distance, looks somewhat like an asterisk and had told him, “Our people sometimes feel like an asterisk in American history.”

McCay said that comment got him and others rethinking the eight-pointed star, which was originally meant to represent Utah’s eight federally recognized Native American tribes.

By doing so, McCay noted, “We were unwittingly putting ourselves in the middle of a political conversation over who gets recognized federally and who doesn’t, and that caused some concerns as well.”

Instead, McCay noted, the five-pointed star corresponds to the state’s five historic native tribes, namely the Navajo, Shoshone, Goshute, Paiute and Ute tribes. They are also prominently symbolized by the new flag’s five mountain peaks, he noted.

McCay also noted that the traditional five-pointed star also represents Utah’s attaining statehood in 1896, when a 45th star was added to the U.S. flag.

Among the 10 senators voting against SB31 were Southern Utah’s Sen. Don Ipson (R-St. George) and Sen. Evan Vickers (R-Cedar City).

Utah’s official state flag, 2021 | Image courtesy of Utah Department of Cultural and Community Engagement, St. George News

Vickers, who is the Senate Majority Leader, told St. George News that his nay vote was based on a survey of his constituents.

“I had around 1,000 people complete the survey and I’m very grateful for those who did,” he said. “Of those who took the survey, 19% supported making a change, 21% didn’t care and 60% were opposed, so I felt I had a pretty clear picture of how my constituents felt on the issue.”

Nevertheless, Vickers said he would support the new flag if the measure passes into law.

“Like any other policy we discuss in the Legislature, if it passes both bodies and is signed into law by the governor, I will get behind it,” he added.

The issue of whether a new state flag is needed has been the subject of much debate over the past few years, with opponents saying there’s no need to change the current flag’s century-old design, which essentially consists of the state seal in front of a blue background.

However, such a motif is used in the state flags of approximately half of the 50 states, while others are much more distinctive, proponents say, pointing to examples of highly recognizable flags, such as those of Texas, Arizona, California, Alaska, New Mexico and Colorado.

Graphic showing all 50 U.S. state flags, with the bottom three rows featuring similar designs consisting of the state seal on a blue background. Utah’s flag is outlined in red. | Image courtesy of Utah State Flag Task Force, St. George News

During a Senate Business and Labor Committee hearing on Jan. 18, Sen. Todd Weiler (R-Woods Cross) spoke of how he changed his mind about Utah’s state flag.

“When I first heard a presentation about this, I think it was three years ago, from Sen. McCay, I was absolutely opposed to changing the state flag,” Weiler said. “I thought it was a waste of time. I thought, you know, our old flag is fine. And then Sen. McCay asked me to watch a video about flag design.”

Weiler said he then started to pay more attention to the elements and characteristics of well-designed flags, citing Alaska’s as a prime example.

He said that while there’s nothing wrong with using a state seal on a flag, “It’s kind of generic way to make a flag.”

Weiler said he received a new T-shirt featuring the proposed new flag design from McCay a couple months ago.

“I’ve been wearing it to the gym,” he said. “Every time I wear it, people come up to me and comment on it and 100% the comments have been positive: ‘That’s really cool. Where can I get one?’”

Citing a similar example, Weiler said a colleague’s daughter had come back wearing a Colorado state flag T-shirt from a volleyball tournament in that state.

“I have never in my life seen someone wearing a T-shirt with (Utah’s) current flag,” Weiler said. I’ve never seen someone wearing a ball cap. I’ve never seen someone with a tattoo of our flag.”

Added Weiler:

Our (current) flag is fine. I’m not against our flag. But I think the opportunity to adopt something that our kids will be proud of, that people will want to wear, that people will display, I think that’s good for our state. And I don’t think it in any way diminishes our pioneer heritage or anything like that.

During that same Jan. 18 hearing, members of the Senate Business and Standing Committee heard from more than a dozen citizens on both sides of the issue, with approximately two-thirds of the speakers voicing opposition. The committee then made a favorable recommendation by a vote of 6-1-1. Later, the Economic Development and Workforce Services Interim Committee also recommended it by a 10-4-2 vote. The Senate then voted 18-9-2 to approve the bill on its second reading on Jan. 23, before the change was made to the number of points on the star.

Proposed design for Utah’s new state flag, as designated in SB31, first substitute, passed by the state Senate in Salt Lake City, Utah on Jan. 30, 2023 | Image courtesy of Utah State Legislature, St. George News

As previously reported in St. George News, a similar design was designated as the state’s 125th anniversary flag in 2021. The following year, with the idea of making a more permanent change, a state flag task force was established and a statewide call went out for entries.

More than 7,000 designs from all around the state were submitted last year, with the task force narrowing those down to 20 semifinals.  More than 40,000 people provided input to help the committee members narrow down their choices.

The task force members then settled on their favorite choice in November.

SB31, which has an effective date of March 9, 2024, also provides for a new license plate design that will feature the new state flag.

Meanwhile, Utah’s traditional state flag, which SB31 states will be designated as the “ceremonial state flag,” will continue to be used for ceremonial and other occasions, so as long as the flag is in serviceable condition. As stated in the language of the bill, “Citizens maintain the right to use the ceremonial state flag upon any occasion deemed fitting and appropriate.”

Additionally, the use and design of the official state seal will remain unchanged.

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2023 Utah Legislature here.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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