The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Boston may not deny a Christian group the ability to fly a flag bearing the image of a cross outside City Hall. One of the three flagpoles there is occasionally used by secular organizations to celebrate the city’s history and diversity.
The unanimous decision was fundamentally about free speech rights. The court said the city created a public forum open to everyone when the city allowed organizations to utilize the flagpole in front of City Hall, which was designed to promote diversity. This was intended for commemorative events and the court ruled that denying this same treatment to the Christian flag was a violation of free speech.
“When the government encourages diverse expression — say, by creating a forum for debate — the First Amendment prevents it from discriminating against speakers based on their viewpoint,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the decision.
“The city’s lack of meaningful involvement in the selection of flags or the crafting of their messages leads us to classify the flag raisings as private, not government, speech — though nothing prevents Boston from changing its policies going forward,” Breyer added.
Harold Shurtleff, director of Camp Constitution sued the city in 2018 who denied him access to use one of the three flagpoles, two of them are reserved for the American flag and the Massachusetts state flag. Boston argued that the flags displayed are government speech that may be chosen by city officials.
The court questioned the city’s control of the flag messages considering that Boston approved 284 requests to fly a flag with no denial except for the one made by the religious group in 2017.
Camp Constitution’s case was represented by conservative Christian legal group Liberty Counsel who fought to protect the camp’s mission “to enhance understanding of our Judeo-Christian moral heritage” and “free enterprise.”
The Biden administration backed the Christian group in the case and argued in court papers that since Boston’s flagpole was treated as a forum accessible to all, it had illegitimately discriminated against Camp Constitution in their view.