Boston can reject Christian flag at City Hall, 1st Circuit rules

Boston City Hall in Boston, Massachusetts
Boston City Hall in Boston, Massachusetts | Creative Commons/Daderots

The city of Boston, Massachusetts, can stop a citizen from flying a Christian flag over City Hall, the First Circuit ruled on Friday. The petitioners say they will go to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that censoring a private flag because it contains a cross amounts to violation of the First Amendment.

Boston is “entitled to select the views that it wants to express,” U.S. Circuit Judge Bruce Selya, a Reagan appointee, wrote for a three-judge panel, according to Courthouse News.

The refusal to fly the flag, the judge added, “simply cannot be construed to suggest the disparagement of the plaintiffs’ religion.”

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The conservative law firm Liberty Counsel pointed out, “Never has Boston censored any flag until the Christian flag, which is white with a blue square in the upper corner and a red cross. The flag contains no writing.” 

Two of the three 83-foot-tall flagpoles outside City Hall always fly the U.S. flag and the state flag. While the third usually flies the city flag, citizens can petition to temporarily raise another flag. Between 2005 and 2017, Boston approved all of the 284 requests it received to fly other flags.

The law firm, which is representing Boston resident Hal Shurtleff and his Christian civic organization Camp Constitution, said, “Under oath, the city official testified the flag would have been approved if the application did not refer to it as a ‘Christian flag.’ The word ‘Christian’ on the application alone triggered the censorship.”

The official said he had never heard of a “Christian flag” until Camp Constitution’s application, Liberty Counsel added.

The flag was to be part of a ceremony to honor the Constitution and recognize the Christian Founders on Sept. 17, 2017, in observance of Constitution Day.

The court said the City Hall’s display of “three flags flying in close proximity communicates the symbolic unity of the three flags.”

“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),” the court continued.

“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 commonwealth of Massachusetts communicates a far different message.”

Liberty Counsel founder and Chairman Mat Staver said the refusal was discrimination.

“The city’s discrimination against Camp Constitution’s Christian viewpoint is both obvious and unconstitutional,” Staver said. “There is a crucial difference between government endorsement of religion and private speech, which government is bound to respect. Censoring religious viewpoints in a public forum where secular viewpoints are permitted is unconstitutional. We look forward to the next step in our journey to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

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