Displaying the American flag from overpasses crossing New Jersey toll highways took a big step after the state senate unanimously passed a bill to allow the patriotic practice, so long as people or groups obtain a permit to do so.
The senate voted 35-0 Thursday to approve the bi-partisan bill that was proposed after an ill-timed enforcement of a controversial ban on all flags by the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, just days before the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, that inspired many of the impromptu highway displays.
The Turnpike Authority did a fast about face in late September, approving an interim policy Sept. 22 to allow American flag displays until permanent rules are established.
But legislators wanted to make sure the public had the ability to display the American flag and proposed the bill. A similar bill is currently before a state assembly committee.
“This measure will protect our residents’ patriotic rights to display the red, white, and blue for commuters and travelers on New Jersey’s busy highways,” said State Senator Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth.
Senate bill S-2909 allows individuals and organizations to display the American flag on a bridge or overpass that is on or over property owned by the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and South Jersey Transportation Authority, with the authority’s permission. Both authorities would be required to develop a permit process.
Among the requirements is that the flags are displayed and maintained in a way that is, “consistent with the rules and customs” for proper flag display.
Both toll road authorities would be prohibited from removing any American flag properly displayed and following the rules in the bill.
Impromptu flag displays became a common and comforting sight in the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Some displays feature American flags in addition to those honoring prisoners of war and branches of the military.
The Turnpike Authority’s interim rules limit displays to one American flag per structure in any one direction, meaning one flag facing southbound, one flag facing northbound.
Flags can’t be displayed using a pole or supporting structure “that could create a hazard” and is attached to an overpass or bridge that doesn’t have a sidewalk or pathway, “for safe installation.”
The person or group given permission to install the flag also is responsible for maintaining it, “in a manner to be specified by the Authority,” according to the resolution.
“The interim policy is being developed,” said Tom Feeney, a Turnpike Authority spokesman. “There is no application process yet.”
“There are no good reasons to prohibit the display of the American flag over New Jersey’s highways,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester/Salem/Cumberland). “It is a symbol of the values and principles we share as citizens. During this time of turmoil and uncertainty, it serves as a reminder of what unifies us as a nation.”
In early September, Turnpike Authority officials announced they would treat the flags as they would any unauthorized advertisement or banner hung from an overpass, he said. Officials cited a statue that bans “any displays, posters, or placards, or display any advertising matter of any kind, regardless of the character or content of the message, on the roadway.”
That provoked an uproar from veterans groups and law enforcement and Gov. Phil Murphy suspended the authority’s action to remove flag displays on Sept. 8.
O’Scanlon and other lawmakers vowed that day to propose a bill to let Old Glory fly again.
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