Supreme Court Alito Heaven Flag

Two people who gathered at Independence Mall to support President Donald Trump during a visit to the National Constitution Center to participate in the ABC News town hall in Philadelphia on Sept. 15, 2020, hold an Appeal To Heaven flag. In recent years, the flag has come to symbolize Christian nationalism and the false claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Michael Perez/Associated Press

Maine’s 1901 flag, a version of which could soon become the official state flag, and the Revolutionary War era Appeal to Heaven flag, which has become one of many symbols adopted by far-right political groups, share the same simple design – a green pine tree on a light-colored background.

Now that the Appeal to Heaven flag has become the center of controversy – in addition to being embraced by Jan. 6 protesters and some Christian nationalists, it has been flown outside the vacation home of conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and outside the office of Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson – will some Mainers have second thoughts about changing their flag in a referendum this November?

David Martucci, who lives in Knox County and is a past president of the North American Vexillological Association, a group dedicated to the study of flags, doesn’t think the latest flap will have any impact here.

“November is far enough off that this will have passed over and most people won’t remember,” he said.

Besides, Martucci doesn’t think the two flags are that similar, even though they both drew inspiration from the maritime flag of Massachusetts. The pine tree itself had been a symbol of indigenous people even before European settlers arrived.

Chris Korzen, co-owner of the Maine Flag Co., which helped popularize the resurgence of the 1901 Maine flag in 2017, said he was well aware of the Appeal to Heaven flag but agreed with Martucci that they aren’t the same.

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“We spent several years researching designs,” he said. “They both have a tree on them, so they are certainly similar in that regard, but there are white pine trees on a lot of flags.”

Still, the effort to adopt a new official flag here already has been fraught, evoking strong opinions on all sides, and the idea that Maine’s flag might be confused with a symbol for insurrectionists and Christian nationalists might not sit well.

“Flags are symbols,” Korzen said. “They represent ideas and community, and folks can get emotional about that.”

A version of the original 1901 Maine state flag flies outside the gift shop Shipwreck and Cargo in the Old Port on Tuesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, whose office is responsible for developing the flag design that Maine voters will be asked to adopt or reject by referendum in November, said her office has received some inquiries since the New York Times published an article about the Appeal to Heaven flag being flown outside Alito’s home. It also has been seen flying outside the Northeast Harbor home of Leonard Leo, a former executive of the Federalist Society, which has been influential in shaping the conservative majority of the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary.

Bellows said the recent debate changes nothing.

“The law requires me to put forward a referendum question to voters to make a decision on whether to support or oppose a new flag,” she said. “Whatever process and design we put forward will be based on Maine history.”

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Bellows said she had no recollection of the Appeal to Heaven flag being part of public testimony on the flag bill last year.

Her office is preparing to announce the process soon for how a model flag will be designed and presented to voters ahead of the November referendum. The flag will have two elements, per the law that passed last year, a pine tree and a North Star, which symbolizes the state motto, Dirigo.

Beginning next year, Maine will begin phasing out its chickadee license plates in favor of a new version that features a pine tree and star, although that change didn’t require voter approval. Motorists can request a blank license plate instead.

Just last month, there was an effort in the Legislature to push the referendum back two years, something Bellows supported. She explained that after speaking with representatives of two other states that changed their flag designs recently, Maine might benefit from more public comment.

“That did not happen, so we’ll do it in the compressed timeline,” she said, adding that the goal is to present a model at least 45 days prior to the election, since that’s when overseas voting can begin.

Unlike other states, Maine won’t be starting from a blank piece of paper. The directive from lawmakers was clear about what should be included.

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Still, there have been many interpretations of the 1901 Maine flag – some featuring a simpler, stylized pine tree design, some more realistic – so Bellows’ office still has work to do to reconcile that.

DIFFERENT BACKGROUND

Martucci said the original 1901 flag features a white pine with three roots representing the three branches of government. The background is not white, but buff (a shade of tan) meant to look like deer hide.

Former Rep. Sean Paulhus, D-Bath, who sponsored the bill last year, said he’s only seen a little of the recent coverage of the Appeal to Heaven flag but agrees that the flags aren’t likely to be conflated.

“Obviously, they both have a pine tree, but other than that, there’s some distinction,” he said. “There might be a few people who are bothered by that, but I think most people in Maine have been paying attention to our flag debate.”

Korzen, whose company came up with a simpler design, agreed with Bellows that the state could have benefited from more time, if for no other reason than politics.

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“It’s hard to speculate on how this will go, but we’re on the record saying this might not be the right time because of the risk of politicization,” he said. “One of the reasons why we created a version of that flag was to bring unity. Unfortunately, we’ve already seen controversy.”

The similarity between the 1901 Maine flag and the Appeal to Heaven flag is somewhat ironic because some Republicans in Maine have characterized the push to change Maine’s flag as emblematic of a “woke” culture. Woke has become a buzzword for conservatives to apply to a broad range of social issues. Some of those same conservatives likely embrace the Appeal to Heaven flag.

Martucci said even if the Appeal to Heaven flag has become a symbol of right-wing politics, he doesn’t think its use is widespread, especially in Maine.

He said there have been countless times in American history “where a decent historical symbol has been co-opted for other uses.”

“Usually, those people aren’t imaginative enough to come up with their own symbols,” he said.

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