March 2021 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

Officials in the city of Boston are not required to fly a Christian flag over City Hall just because a citizen requested it, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Ap­peals ruled on Jan. 22 in Shurtleff v. City of Boston that officials could deny a request made by Howard Shurtleff to fly the flag in question on Sept. 17, to mark the signing of the U.S. Constitution.

Boston has three flagpoles that tower above its city hall. One flies the American flag, and the second flies the Massachusetts flag. The third pole often flies the Boston city flag, but other types of flags may be flown based on residents’ requests.

Over the years, flags have flown to mark holidays, to recognize for­eign countries or for civic events. The court ruled that did not mean Shurtleff had the right to have a Christian flag flown.

Doing so, the court ruled, would send the message that the city endorses Christianity.

“The sky-high City Hall display of three flags flying in close proximity communicates the symbolic unity of the three flags,” read the opinion, written by U.S. Circuit Judge Bruce M. Selya. “It therefore strains credulity to believe that an observer would partition such a coordinated three-flag display … into a series of sep­arate yet simultaneous mes­sages (two that the government endorses and another as to which the govern­ment disclaims any relation).”

Continued Selya, “Although the plaintiffs might perhaps make the case that a lone Christian flag, no­where near City Hall, would be seen as devoid of any connection to a government entity, a City Hall dis­play that places such a flag next to the flag of the United States and the flag of the [C]ommonwealth of Mas­sachusetts communicates a far dif­-f­erent message.” 

Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, arg­uing that Shurtleff should not have the right to fly a religious flag at the seat of government. In his ruling, Selya noted AU’s brief and called it “helpful.”