NEW ORLEANS (CN) – A three-judge Fifth Circuit panel heard arguments Tuesday in a case centered on a city’s decision not to allow the Louisiana branch of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to wave Confederate flags in a 2015 Christmas parade.
The Historic District Business Association of Natchitoches asked the Confederate group not to fly its flags in the city’s parade based on concerns the symbol might bother onlookers or lead to violence or protests, attorneys told the judges.
The small and historic city of Natchitoches, pronounced “Nackonish,” is roughly a four hour drive northwest from New Orleans. It was the location for the 1989 film “Steel Magnolias” and is home to just under 20,000 people, 59% of whom are African-American.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans declined to march in the 2015 parade altogether. The group’s attorney Dick Knadler said during Tuesday’s hearing that members have marched without incident in the Natchitoches Christmas parade for 25 years.
He said the group would not have marched in 2015 even if its member would have been allowed to without the flag because they would not have wanted to do so without their “historic battle flag.”
Knadler said supporters of the group who attended the Christmas parade in 2015 brought their own Confederate flags and waved them, and no violence or protests broke out.
He said that among the issues up for review is whether the Historic District Business Association was acting as a city entity in making its decision to bar the flag in the parade.
Knadler said it would be a violation of members’ civil rights if the city itself, as a governmental entity, asked the group not to wave its flag.
But attorney Ronald Corkern Jr. of Corkern Crews, who represents Natchitoches, argued the group should never have felt entitled to wave a Confederate flag in someone else’s parade in the first place, since marching in a private parade is not an entitlement under the Constitution.
Corkern said, for example, that both Grambling State University and Southern University have homecomings every year “but you will never see the Ku Klux Klan in one of their parades” because the KKK has no entitlement to join any parade it wants.
“If the Sons of Confederate Veterans want to march in a parade, they should ask to have a parade of their own,” Corkern said outside the Fifth Circuit courthouse in New Orleans after the hearing, further clarifying the city’s view on the issue.
Throughout the hearing, it was hard to tell where the judges’ sympathies lay. All three members of Tuesday’s panel – U.S. Circuit Judges Jennifer Walker Elrod, Leslie Southwick and Catharina Haynes – were appointed by George W. Bush.
The judges did not indicate when they will rule in the case.
Knadler said he hopes the judges will reverse U.S. District Judge Dee D. Drell’s dismissal of the lawsuit and send it back to Alexandra federal court for further consideration.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans filed its underlying seven-page lawsuit in August 2016 against Natchitoches, Mayor Lee Posey, and three unnamed members of the Christmas Festival Committee.
In its complaint, the group calls itself “a premier historical and heritage organization dedicated solely to the education of the populace regarding the War for Southern Independence and the Confederate Soldier.”
The lawsuit says the group’s parade form was initially accepted without restrictions during the 2015 season.
But then, on around Nov. 2, 2015, Mayor Posey sent a letter to the Christmas Festival Committee asking it stop the group from displaying Confederate flags during the parade.
The permit denial came months after nine black worshippers at a South Carolina church were shot to death by white supremacist Dylann Roof. Photos then surfaced on social media showing Roof posing with Confederate flags.
The mass shooting led to fierce opposition to public displays of Confederate flags and memorials, including in New Orleans, which eventually removed several monuments.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans lawsuit quotes from a letter Mayor Posey sent to the group telling its members not to march.
“In the past several months there has been considerable discussion regarding the Confederate flag and what it represents. For many, the flag represents a symbol of patriotism, faith and family. However, public comments have shown that many members of the general public find the Confederate flag to be offensive, and the city believes these comments to be reasonable,” the letter states.
It continues, “The city has determined that a significant portion of the public associate the Confederate flag with organizations advocating expressions of hate, racism and intolerance directed toward people or groups that is demeaning to those people or groups. The city is also concerned that the display of the Confederate flag in the Natchitoches Christmas Festival Parade could be taken by the public as an endorsement of a symbol that is viewed as racially inflammatory.”