A flag that had caused zero controversy for much of its time in a San Francisco city-owned collection of historic flags, which have flown outside City Hall since the 1960s, has been quietly removed by Rec & Park staff after it has come to take on new meaning.

A flag that was one of several historic flags coopted by the Stop the Steal movement following the 2020 election — and specifically associated with a far-right segment of the Christian right — has made headlines in the last week since it was revealed that it had been flying outside the vacation home of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. For many years, it has been one of a collection of 18 flags representing different moments in American history that have flown on flagpoles in what's known as the Pavilion of American Flags in Civic Center Plaza.

Known as the Pine Tree Flag, it was created in 1775 at the request of George Washington, with the phrase "An Appeal to Heaven" on it, to be flown on colonial fighters' ships so that they could recognize one another.

The phrase was inspired by a resolution that had been adopted by the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts following the Battle of Lexington and Concord, which used the phrase, "Appealing to Heaven for the justice of our cause, we determine to die or be free."

As this history of the Pavilion of American Flags, posted by KQED in 2017, explains, "The flagpoles were installed during a period of great nationalism, especially in San Francisco," and the flags were first raised in 1964. The American flag as we know it had just been redesigned following the statehoods of Alaska and Hawaii in 1959, and a local service club, called the Sertoma Club, came up with the idea of a collection of flags — which included obscure ones from the country's history, including the now ubiquitous "Don't Tread on Me" snake flag, known as the Gadsen Flag, which also dates to 1775.

The Gadsen Flag and the Pine Tree Flag were both among those flown by January 6th rioters, and as we learned via the Alito incident, the Pine Tree Flag has taken on new meaning since it was coopted by a particular Christian right preacher and ardent fan of Donald Trump, Dutch Sheets. Sheets has been giving the flag to various figures on the right, including Sarah Palin and House Speaker Mike Johnson, and it's being used to symbolize a call for the re-Christianization of the country.

The Pine Tree Flag takes on especially problematic meaning for Alito and the increasing sense of the Supreme Court's illegitimacy and partisanship. And an example of it that was briefly flown late last week atop a building in Jackson Square caused a stir, and it was taken down — though it's not clear what the flag's owner was trying to express there.

As the Chronicle reports today, Rec & Parks officials have quietly removed the flag from Civic Center Plaza, saying in a statement that while it once symbolized a "quest for American independence," it has "since been adopted by a different group — one that doesn’t represent the city’s values."

It has been swapped out for a standard American flag.

In recent years, and even as recently as last week, right-wing commentators on social media have noted the irony of liberal San Francisco displaying the Appeal to Heaven flag outside City Hall.

The Chronicle notes that the last controversial flag in the city's collection that was removed was the Confederate Flag, which was controversial from the moment it first flew in front of City Hall in 1964 — as the Chronicle reported at the time.

It was still part of the collection for another 20 years, having been replaced along with a number of the flags that had grown ragged while Dianne Feinstein was mayor in 1981. After the Confederate flag was ripped down in protest and replaced once in 1984, and then ripped down again by the same protester, Feinstein relented and listened to a Black member of the Board of Supervisors, agreeing not to have the flag replaced again.

Previously: The Same Insurrectionist Flag That Flew Over Samuel Alito's Beach House Just Flew Over a Building In SF's Jackson Square

Photo: cezanneab/X