A Christian Nationalist Battle Flag Flew at Justice Alito’s Vacation Home

Sam Alito — the arch conservative Supreme Court justice — now has two flag controversies to explain, and another striking reason to doubt his impartiality in cases involving Donald Trump and the Jan. 6 defendants.

Alito has already been in the news for an upside-down American flag that flew at his primary residence during the period surrounding Jan. 6, 2021. Alito has blamed the placement of that flag — which is typically only to be flown to signify national distress, including when the government has fallen — on his wife Martha-Ann. He characterized her action as the result of a heated dispute with neighbors over a coarse anti-Trump political yard sign.

But now the New York Times is reporting that an even more provocative flag was seen flying at the Alito’s vacation home on the New Jersey Shore last year. The Alito home on Long Beach Island was photographed flying the “Appeal to Heaven” flag, also known as the Pine Tree Flag, during the summer months of 2023.

That flag was originally flown during the American Revolution. It carries a quote from the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, who argued that when a just people are faced with injustice in the political realm, and have exhausted all avenues for redress, that they can move to violence — and God will judge the righteousness of their action. “Where there lies no appeal on Earth,” the philosopher wrote, “they have just cause to make their appeal to heaven.”

This flag was laregly a relic of history until it was revived by a far-right religious leader named Dutch Sheets, who has transformed the flag into a banner for Christian nationalists. The pine tree on the flag was originally a symbol of protest for British exploitation of the colonies; the monarchy exported the tallest and truest pine trees from New England for the masts on British navy ships. But in Sheets’ appropriation, the tree now is said to symbolize God’s covenant with Abraham — and with America as a supposedly divinely chartered nation.

The Appeal to Heaven flag is now associated with a militant arm of Christian nationalism. It waved as a battle flag by many of the Jan. 6 insurgents, who stormed the U.S. Capitol in 2021 seeking to keep Donald Trump in office and prevent the peaceful transfer of power to President Joe Biden.

The flag has continued to be displayed by the kinds of religious-right politicians who baselessly cast doubt on the legitimacy of the outcome of the 2020 election, including by failed Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, as well as House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), as Rolling Stone reported last November.

The symbolism of the flag is no longer oblique. It is a potent symbol for American zealots who breed distrust in American democracy and seek a vast expansion of religion in public life. The notion that a sitting Supreme Court justice would have this flag waving, unabashedly, above his home casts doubt on his impartiality in significant matters before the court, including cases involving Jan. 6 defendants, and the questions about whether Donald Trump can be prosecuted for allegedly criminal acts he undertook as president.

Alito did not answer the New York Times‘ questions about what message was intended to be sent by the flying of the banner above his home. The paper published photographs of the flag taken by neighbors, as well as a Google Street View image of the justice’s home that captured the flag. It is no longer flying above the Jersey Shore home.

This is a developing story and may be updated.

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