In a unanimous ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday that the city of Boston violated the First Amendment by refusing to fly a local organization’s Christian flag on one of three flagpoles in front of City Hall, though it had flown other groups’ flags.
In 2017, Boston resident Hal Shurtleff and his Christian civic organization, Camp Constitution, asked the city for a permit to raise the Christian flag on a Boston City Hall flagpole to commemorate Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, as well as the civic and cultural contributions of the Christian community to the city.
Of the three flagpoles located in front of City Hall, one usually flies the American and the POW/MIA flags; one flies the Massachusetts state flag; and one typically contains the city of Boston’s flag. But periodically, the city’s flag is swapped out for a variety of other flags to celebrate significant events or occasions as requested by the public on a first-come, first-served basis.
In fact, between 2005 and 2017, the flagpole was used to display 284 flags, including LGBTQ pride flags and the flag of Turkey, which has Islamic imagery. But when Camp Constitution applied to raise the Christian flag on the pole, the city denied the request. The city claimed that the private flag raisings are actually government speech, and therefore, officials may choose the messages they want to convey, just as they might on the city’s website.
A U.S. District Court and the First Circuit Court of Appeals both sided with the city. But the Supreme Court justices disagreed.
“We conclude that Boston’s flag-raising program does not express government speech,” Associate Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the court. “As a result, the city’s refusal to let [Camp Constitution] fly their flag based on its religious viewpoint violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.”
The 9-0 opinion provided a rare look at a united court, despite various ideological differences. Several of the conservative justices agreed with the overall ruling but disagreed with the specific reasoning the majority used in reaching its decision.
Liberty Counsel’s Founder and Chairman Mat Staver, who argued the case on behalf of Camp Constitution, called it a “historic day.”
“This case is so much more significant than a flag,” he said. “Boston cheated when it opened the flagpoles to all applicants and then excluded Christian viewpoints. The city then claimed that the flagpoles never were a public forum despite its history and express policy. The city’s censorship is clearly unconstitutional, and government cannot censor religious viewpoints.”
Religious liberty law firm Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) also celebrated the ruling:
“When city officials open a program or activity to ‘all applicants,’ they cannot exclude those wishing to express religious beliefs,” said John Bursch, ADF senior counsel and vice president of appellate advocacy. “The city of Boston’s exclusion of religious expression from an otherwise wide-open public program amounted to discrimination based on viewpoint and is therefore unconstitutional. That said, this case is about much more than displaying a Christian flag at City Hall; this is about the protection of our First Amendment rights, which extend equally to all Americans, without government punishment. We are pleased the Supreme Court has upheld the right of religious citizens to participate in the public square.”
Above: Boston City Hall