Religious Displays

Americans United And Allies: Supreme Court Should Protect Religious Freedom By Affirming That Boston Is Not Required To Fly The Christian Flag

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Americans United for Separation of Church and State, joined by the National Council of Churches and 17 other religious and civil-rights organizations, today urged the U.S. Supreme Court to protect religious freedom by affirming that the City of Boston should not be forced to display the Christian flag on a city hall flagpole.

In an amicus brief filed today in Shurtleff v. City of Boston, the organizations explained that the flags Boston chooses to display on the city hall flagpoles are government speech. The First Amendment does not require Boston to amplify a private third party’s religious views. Rather, the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause requires Boston not to endorse or favor any religious views or displays.

The organizations joining the brief – many representing diverse faith and secular traditions – feel strongly that an official government display of the Christian flag would be exclusionary and send the message to the countless Americans whose beliefs are not represented that their government favors a particular religion. Additionally, the brief notes that many people who believe the Christian flag is a sacred representation of their faith would find it intrusive and corrosive if the government appeared to co-opt their symbols. This is especially of concern for the National Council of Churches, whose predecessor organization officially adopted the Christian flag in 1942.

“The separation of church and state is the constitutional principle that guarantees everyone’s right to religious freedom – to live as ourselves and believe as we choose. To force anyone, let alone a major American city, to endorse a religion and display its sacred symbols would be anathema to our country’s founders and the religious freedom for all that they worked so hard to secure,” said Richard B. Katskee, vice president and legal director of Americans United. “Doing so would play right into the hands of Christian nationalists who want the government to force everyone to live by their beliefs – threatening division and religious strife and widening inequality in our communities and throughout the country. It’s clear that the Supreme Court should not force Boston to fly the Christian flag at city hall.”

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Shurtleff v. City of Boston on Jan. 18.

In addition to Americans United and the National Council of Churches, organizations joining the brief include American Atheists; American Humanist Association; Central Conference of American Rabbis; Disciples Center for Public Witness; Disciples Justice Action Network; Equal Partners in Faith; Global Justice Institute, Metropolitan Community Churches; Hindu American Foundation; Jewish Social Policy Action Network; Men of Reform Judaism; Methodist Federation for Social Action; National Council of Jewish Women; New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ; People For the American Way; Union for Reform Judaism; Unitarian Universalist Association; and Women of Reform Judaism.

The brief was authored by Katskee and Americans United Legal Fellow Adrianne Spoto; Charles A. Rothfeld and Andrew J. Pincus at the law firm Mayer Brown LLP; Eugene R. Fidell and the students at the Yale Law School’s Supreme Court Clinic; and Paul W. Hughes and Michael B. Kimberly at the law firm McDermott Will & Emery LLP.

The amicus brief in Shurtleff v. City of Boston is available here.

Americans United is a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, AU educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

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Liz Hayes
Associate Vice President of Communications
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