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Flags fly, but it's no banner decision 

Like the day-after calm on an abandoned battlefield, the brightly colored rainbow flags that suddenly graced downtown on Tuesday morning gave no hint of the angry confrontation that preceded their hanging in darkness the night before.

A symbol of gay pride, the banners became a lightning rod for three hours of arguments waged in front of the Orlando City Council on Monday, which already had agreed to let the flags fly before the public weighed in. But it was a reluctant agreement. "We all find ourselves in an awkward and difficult and even painful situation over this issue," began Mayor Glenda Hood, whose office had been besieged by opponents.

In the end, she cheered the triumph of an approval process that the city nonetheless had tried unsuccessfully to undermine, even at the last minute, by shortening the length of the display.

That display had been OK'd by the Downtown Development Board, which for the past 10 years has raised banners for events from World Cup soccer, to NBA All-Star weekend, to the Chinese government's display here of museum artifacts. Gay and lesbian staff members of the newspaper Watermark had dreamed up the rainbow flag display for Gay Pride Month, linked by this weekend's grass-roots Gay Days activities and a June 27 Gay Pride Parade downtown. Like other groups before them, they raised private funds to pay the city to mount the display.

Enter predictable preacher John Butler Book, a Maitland televangelist whose extremist views got him booted in 1996 from the list of approved Orange County Sheriff's Office chaplains. Though the rainbow flags were approved so long ago that they had been ordered and delivered to the city, Book last week decided that he wanted to hoist his own flags promoting a heterosexual agenda.

But he ran into a moratorium on such displays -- a stand proposed after the rainbow flags went through, and prompted not by those flags but by merchants' simmering anger at the drawn-out banner display marking Disney's 25th anniversary.

Butler's minority view put the council on the defensive: Could they endorse the rainbow banners while simultaneously supporting the moratorium and a subsequent review that, presumably, will tie all future flag displays to city-sponsored events?

City Attorney Scott Gabrielson said they had no choice. The rainbow flag sponsors had followed the rules and received the required approvals. And yet he assured the council that they could distance themselves from any action, fueling the anti-gay sentiment in a public hearing by adding that Disney's banners did not mean city support for Disney's "controversial" policy of extending health benefits to same-sex partners. And despite raising banners provided by China after its standoff with pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square, he said helpfully, "Putting those banners up did not imply any approval of what that government had done."

It was not quite the escape clause that most on the council wanted to hear. But they took it anyway.

Only the Third District's Don Ammerman voted against the display, deriding the flags in a session before the public hearing as "a symbol of a particular political cause," as political, he said, as "the N.R.A., the Ku Klux Klan `and` a white supremacists' group." He meant to warn of others who might want flags of their own, but the inference of like-minded, exclusionary agendas was more than an insult; it was an outrage.

None tried to blunt it. Worse, just as the vote endorsing the flags was reported, it was rated as a triumph in a platitude dished up by the Sixth District's Bruce Gordy. "What a great country, mayor, and what a great exercise in democracy we've had here today," he said.

If only that were true.

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