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Is it time for a new Utah state flag?

Utah’s flag is too complicated for school students to draw

The Utah flag flies over the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. Sen. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, is proposing that the current flag be redesigned.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Without looking at it, can you tell how many years it contains? Are there arrows, and if so, how many? Is the American flag depicted within the flag? If so, how many stars does it contain? Does the state flag contain flowers? What about an eagle? Bees?

And finally, does the state Legislature have better things to do than to worry that this isn’t good enough?

Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, has heard affirmative answers to that last one a few times. “There will always be some people saying, ‘Stupid Legislature, there you go again,’” he told me this week. “There are those who say, ‘Why waste time on something like this during a pandemic?’”

But the problem, as he sees it, is that he’s a fifth-generation Utahn who, until he got involved in efforts to change it a few years ago, had never really looked at the state flag. When he did, he began to wonder if it couldn’t be made into a better reflection of who Utahns are.

Or maybe the arguments this causes will make us all wary of looking in the mirror.

Colorado, Handy said, has a sense of pride about its simple, but eye-catching, flag. It isn’t unusual to see the Texas flag worn proudly on clothing and baseball caps. Arizona’s conveys a sense of warmth and welcoming. None of these is busy. They are simple and effective.

This year, Handy and state Sen. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, are co-sponsoring a bill, SB48, that would establish a task force to begin studying whether to replace the flag with something new. It isn’t the first time this bill has been presented. In past years, it has cleared the House and stalled in the Senate. This time, the sponsors are trying to run it up first in the Senate, so to speak, to see if enough people salute.

Ultimately, if the bill passes, Handy said, he hopes the task force, and the Legislature, might give Utah voters the final say.

If so, it wouldn’t be the first time something like this was put to a vote. The people of Mississippi recently got a say in changing their flag to one with magnolias in the center. But then, the old flag was a Confederate battle emblem, so the need for a change was obvious to many. Utah’s problem is less apparent.

Sure, as critics note, Utah schoolchildren have trouble drawing the flag. But then, schoolchildren nationwide have similar problems in their own states. One can sympathize with kids in Illinois who not only have to draw an eagle whose talons hold a shield containing stars and stripes, and whose beak holds a ribbon that says “State Sovereignty, National Union” with “sovereignty” upside down.

In fact, Colorado, Texas and Arizona stand out because a lot of state flags are just as busy and complicated as Utah’s. Many, like Utah, use a blue background with the state seal in the middle.

Handy said we can do better. Utah’s flag should be made more relevant to today’s population.

“We’re a very young state,” he said. “That generation doesn’t relate to the flag.”

But redesigning the flag wouldn’t be easy, especially in Utah.

To answer those quiz questions, the current flag contains two years, 1847 (the year pioneer settlers — religious refugees — first entered the valley) and 1896 (the year of statehood). It has six arrows below an eagle, symbolizing the state’s six indigenous Native American tribes. It contains an American flag with 45 stars (Utah was the 45th state). It contains sego lilies, the state flower and a source of nourishment for early settlers, and it has seven bees, a beehive and the words “Industry” and “Utah.”

Would a new flag contain symbols of the state’s religious roots? Would it continue to recognize Native Americans? Would we end up arguing over these things, or would the new flag be something so simple it seems to ignore the state’s complicated past?

McCay told a Senate committee not to worry about losing the old flag. The state seal wouldn’t change, and the old flag would remain as a “ceremonial flag.”

Handy envisions the state coming together over this project, with even school classes competing for the best design. In the end, he sees the adoption of something that could “be a rallying cry” and a source of pride.

And now, for that most important question. Do lawmakers have better things to do? Of course, and, for the most part, they’re doing them. Perhaps a more relevant question might be, what better time is there to worry about something like a flag than during a pandemic, when many of us have little else to do?