For more than 20 years, Key West’s city commission chambers have displayed the American flag, along with the state flag of Florida, the POW/MIA flag, the rainbow flag and the Conch Republic flag. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

By Jim McCarthy & Mandy Miles

A 60-day legislative session in Tallahassee that began March 7 could bring some serious policy shifts to Florida’s school curriculum and concealed-carry firearm laws. The House and Senate could be on their way to addressing an affordable housing crisis, while Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis aims to slide his priorities through a Republican-controlled legislature. 

Of the 1,000 bills filed so far, one particular piece of legislation could lower and remove certain flags that wave outside government buildings and inside legislative chambers and offices. 

Legislation recently filed by state Rep. David Borrero, a Republican representing Miami-Dade County, would restrict a number of flags being displayed at government buildings at the state and local level, as well as public schools. Specifically, House Bill 1011 would only let agencies exhibit the state flag, U.S. flag and POW/MIA flag. The official firefighter memorial flag can also be displayed at state-owned facilities.

That means the Pride flag and the storied Conch Republic flag would need to come off government buildings in the Keys. Some governments have also flown the Ukraine flag to support the country’s ongoing war against Russia. 

“No other flag may be exposed to public view for exhibition or display, in any matter, by a governmental agency, local government or unit of local government,” according to the bill’s text. 

In Key West, the bill would affect the Conch Republic flag and the rainbow flag that has long symbolized LGBTQ rights. Both are displayed inside and outside Key West’s City Hall. A rainbow flag has been inside city hall for more than 20 years.  

“This bill came onto my radar last week,” Key West Mayor Teri Johnston told the Keys Weekly on March 6. “The focus of this legislative session should squarely be on our housing crisis, hardening our communities to the effects of sea level rise, infrastructure issues, coral reef and Everglades protections and windstorm insurance rates. None of our hot button issues include dictating which flags a governmental agency can fly. This clearly falls into the category of ‘government overreach.’”

Kevin Theriault, executive director of the Key West Business Guild, which was founded decades ago to represent gay-owned and gay-friendly businesses in Key West, but now welcomes all members, said, “It is very disappointing to see that our majority leadership in Tallahassee continues to prioritize dividing the citizens of Florida rather than bringing us together to work on the real issues Floridians share. The new focus on what flags are permitted at state and local government buildings is just another example.”

In addition to the American and state flags, Key West’s city hall also flies the POW/MIA flag, the Conch Republic flag, the rainbow flag and more recently, the Ukrainian flag as a show of support for the war-torn nation. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

The Conch Republic flag dates back to April 23, 1982, when the federal government placed a Border Patrol roadblock at the Last Chance Saloon in Florida City. A search initially announced to find illegal migrants became more of an operation targeting drugs as law enforcement scoured through engines and glove compartments. 

“While the event was not overly prolonged, it went on long enough to ding the tourist economy,” Keys historian Brad Bertelli wrote in a 2021 Keys Weekly History column. 

Then-Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow sought an injunction in Miami Superior Court in hopes of removing the checkpoint and bringing regular tourist activity back without any hindrance. Wardlow and his constituents were told that while the checkpoint would not be dismantled, it would cease to operate in its previous, egregious manner. Wardlow left the courthouse with his head held high, and the following day he announced that Key West and the Florida Keys would secede, thus declaring the new Conch Republic. A conch shell-emblazoned flag has waved throughout the Keys since then. 

Legislation only allows for the display of the state and U.S. flags on the grounds of public postsecondary schools. K-12 institutions can display the U.S. flag inside the classroom, but that’s it. 

Monroe County school board member Sue Woltanski said she believes the flags a community displays during local government meetings or in their buildings should be a local decision.

“We don’t need Tallahassee telling us how to decorate our offices or board rooms,” she said. 

State Rep. Jim Mooney told the Keys Weekly he hadn’t seen the bill, but said he would talk to Borrero to see what he’s thinking with the proposal. The Keys Weekly reached out to Borrero for a comment, but didn’t receive a response before press time. 

Legislation was referred to the House’s State Affairs Committee and Constitutional Rights, Rule of Law & Government Operations Subcommittee. A similar bill filed in the Senate by state Sen. Jay Collins was referred to the Senate Government Oversight and Accountability, Community and Rules committees.