The U.S. Supreme Court ruled without dissent on May 2 that officials in Boston must allow a conservative Christian group to fly its flag on a city-owned flagpole because other groups had been given access to the space.
In a unanimous decision written by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, the high court said that the city had created a limited public forum by allowing the flags of private organizations to be displayed on city flagpoles, and that First Amendment free-speech protections therefore required the city to allow the Christian flag.
A Christian nationalist group called Camp Constitution sought to fly the Christian flag, which has a red cross against a blue box on a white flag, on a flagpole outside Boston’s City Hall. City officials refused, saying they didn’t want to create the impression that the city endorses a particular version of faith.
The court ruled in Shurtleff v. City of Boston that the flags were private speech, and thus Boston must open that forum to all.
“Because the court found the flags were private, not government, speech, Boston no longer has a say in which flags can be flown at city hall,” said AU President and CEO Rachel Laser in a statement to the media. “This decision doesn’t change the Constitution’s requirements that the government cannot promote, favor, endorse or sponsor religion.”
Added Laser, “Nevertheless, this ruling could undermine church-state separation if it is abused in ways that end up favoring the dominant religious majority. But governments might avoid that by closing the forum at any time, as the court noted. Additionally, the flags flying above city hall would have been government speech if Boston had stated so in a policy or exercised more discretion in deciding which flags to display. Other governments might take that path.”
She concluded, “If a government permits this access to the majority religion, others are equally entitled to display their beliefs or non-belief, too. This decision is a reminder that groups representing religious minorities and nontheists must be given equal access to these kinds of public forums to display their own symbols.”
Days after the decision was released, the Satanic Temple, a group that promotes equal treatment of all religious group by the government, applied for a permit to fly its flag during “Satanic Appreciation Week” July 23-29.
Americans United, joined by the National Council of Churches and 17 other religious and civil-rights organizations, had filed a legal brief in the case in December, urging the Supreme Court to protect religious freedom by affirming that the city should not be forced to display the Christian flag on a city hall flagpole.