Supreme Court Rules Boston Violated First Amendment by Refusing to Fly Christian Group’s Flag

The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the city of Boston violated the First Amendment by refusing to fly a local organization’s Christian flag in front of city hall. Other groups representing various ideologies were allowed to fly flags while this group was singled out.

Boston has allowed dozens of flags to be flown on one of the three flagpoles outside city hall since 2005, some of which expressed the views of private groups or causes. The city had not denied any requests, until 2017 that is, when the director of a group called Camp Constitution asked to fly a flag honoring the “contributions of the Christian community.”

The issue hinged on whether the flags being flown represented the views of the city government or whether they were representing the views of private citizens. Since some flags were allowed while Camp Constitution was singled out, the Court ruled that this violated the First Amendment.

The decision in Shurtleff v. the City of Boston was unanimous, with the Court ruling that Boston should have allowed the Christian group’s flag because the flags did not represent government speech.  Boston argued that allowing that flag would have been impermissible government speech, but Justice Stephen Breyer and the entire court disagreed.

“We conclude that Boston’s flag-raising program does not express government speech,” Justice Breyer wrote for the court. “As a result, the city’s refusal to let (the group) fly their flag based on its religious viewpoint violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.”

A federal district court and a federal appeals court had previously sided with Boston, holding that the flags being flown from the city-hall flagpole amounted to government speech.

The Supreme Court, however, looked at “the extent to which Boston actively controlled these flag raisings and shaped the messages the flags sent,” Breyer wrote. “The answer, it seems, is not at all,” his opinion said. “And that is the most salient feature of this case.”

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