BALTIMORE — The Confederate battle flag can fly at a Civil War
cemetery in St. Mary's County, a federal judge has ruled.
In the opinion issued yesterday, U.S. District Judge William M.
Nickerson held that, as applied in this case, federal Veterans Administration
regulations that prohibit displaying the flag over the cemetery violated
The Justice Department had argued that allowing the flag to fly at the
cemetery on a daily basis could be viewed as an endorsement of racial
intolerance by the U.S. government, which operates the cemetery.
Nickerson wrote that the government's "continual reference to the
Confederate flag as a symbol of racial intolerance and divisiveness clearly
demonstrates that Defendants are choosing, and advancing, the viewpoint of
those offended by the flag over the viewpoint of those proud of the flag."
"That's just wonderful news, wonderful news for my Confederate
ancestors, and I guess everybody's Confederate ancestors," said Patrick J.
Griffin III, a Montgomery County man who brought the suit.
However, Nickerson also wrote that "a sign shall be erected at the
base of the flag pole clearly indicating that the display of the Confederate
flag is provided by and supported by a private party or parties," rather than
the U.S. government.
More than 3,000 Southern prisoners are buried at the graveyard at
Point Lookout, where the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay meet.
Home to a prisoner of war camp set up by the Union shortly after the
Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, more than 50,000 Confederate prisoners went
through the camp — more than any other camp operated by either side
— and an estimated 4,000 of them died under harsh conditions.
Michael Wright, a First Amendment lawyer who argued the case for
Griffin, said the ruling had implications for all Confederate cemeteries run by
the federal government, and possibly for other federal cemeteries where
Confederates are buried, including Arlington National Cemetery.
A cemetery attendant began flying the Confederate battle flag at the
Point Lookout cemetery in 1994, but it was ordered taken down in 1998 after it
came to the attention of the Veterans Affairs Department, which operates the
cemetery. A 1995 policy allowed the flag at its cemeteries only on Memorial Day
or Confederate Memorial Day.
A Virginia-based group called the Point Lookout POW Descendants
Organization said it gathered more than 14,000 signatures from people demanding
that the flag be restored. Griffin, a descendant of an officer held at Point
Lookout, sued last October, arguing that a Confederate cemetery is an
appropriate place to fly a Confederate flag.
Under Nickerson's ruling, Griffin is permitted to display a
full-sized, historically accurate Confederate battle flag from its own pole at
Point Lookout, daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The pole must be at least three feet
lower than the U.S. flagpole, and Griffin and his supporters must bear the cost
of erecting the pole.