ST. PETERSBURG — The rainbow flag, a symbol of pride and acceptance for gays and lesbians, has sparked a constitutional standoff between City Hall and organizers behind the city's annual St. Pete Pride festival.
On light posts across the city, colorful banners billow in the name of baseball, downtown attractions or specific neighborhoods. St. Pete Pride organizers had hoped to temporarily hang a new symbol in the city's gay-friendly business district throughout June: a rainbow flag to recognize Pride Month.
City officials, however, quickly vetoed the idea. They say the flag does not meet St. Petersburg's street banner policy, which states all banners must carry a written message. They suggested the event organizers come up with a custom banner that reads "St. Pete Pride" alongside the rainbow flag and offered to help locate an affordable printing shop.
"It can have a rainbow," said Beth Herendeen, the city's marketing director who oversees the street banner program. "That's not the problem."
But St. Pete Pride organizers claim the flag flap is the latest snub from an administration that has never embraced their cause.
The flag, organizers argue, is no different from the myriad holiday decorations strung from street lights and park trees every December.
"Mayor Rick Baker has gone out of his way to make it difficult for St. Pete Pride, and he has thrown up every roadblock that he could as St. Pete mayor," said event organizer David Schauer. "What the city is basically doing is saying, 'it's okay for us to decorate the poles for a Christian holiday but it is not okay for you to decorate the poles for a gay street festival,' and therefore they are in violation of the Constitution based on that alone."
Brian Longstreth, a founder of St. Pete Pride, proposed hanging the rainbow flag after he noted many of the neighborhood banners in the Grand Central District had been taken down because of wear and tear. He got permission from the district's business association to hang the flags on the vacant street posts instead.
Longstreth said he was going to pay someone to hang and remove 180 flags purchased in bulk for $400. Custom banners would be too expensive. What's more, he said, words would dilute the message of the flag.
"We are trying to help beatify the district," he said. "It feels like because it's rainbow flags the city started trying to figure out how not to make it happen."
The city's street banner program states all banners must meet one of four requirements: They must identify an area or district, give a welcome message, promote a special event or publicize a cultural venue.
Pride organizers have asked the American Civil Liberties Union to intervene on their behalf. Rebecca Steel, the ACLU's west-central Florida director, said the city's policy could have some "First Amendment implications."
"The devil is in the details," she said.
Some Grand Central District business owners said Monday they supported the flag proposal. "Pride has been wonderful," said Jamie Farquharson, owner of Beak's Old Florida tavern.
Baker's administration has a long, complicated relationship with St. Pete Pride. The event is the city's largest, but Baker has never attended. He has never signed the City Council's annual proclamation recognizing St. Pete Pride Month and once said he didn't support St. Pete Pride's "general agenda."
Baker could not be reached for comment Monday, but Herendeen said she was not influenced by her boss. "I'm just working with the policy," she said. "If we veer from that policy once, we have to veer from that policy over and over again and who is to say who the next group might be?"
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or email@example.com.