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Supreme Court Rules Boston Unconstitutionally Banned Christian Flag From City Hall : NPR

Supreme Court Rules Boston Unconstitutionally Banned Christian Flag From City Hall : NPR

The United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Monday that the city of Boston must allow a Christian group to fly its flag over City Hall, but the ruling was narrow enough that other cities, including made by Boston itself, could craft rules that would limit the flying of the flag to people approved by the government. messages.

Just outside Boston City Hall, once called “the ugliest building in the world”, are three flagpoles. One sports the American flag, the second sports the state flag, and the third usually sports the city flag. Usually — because Boston has, for years, allowed other flags to be hoisted on the third mast when groups get permission to hold ceremonies in the town square. Between 2005 and 2017, Boston approved the raising of 50 of these flags, most marking other countries’ national holidays.

Still, a few of the flags were associated with other groups or causes – National Pride Week, emergency medical service workers and a community bank. In fact, the city had never turned down a flag-raising request until 2017, when Harold Shurtleff, the director of an organization called Camp Constitution, asked to hold a flag-raising ceremony for a “flag Christian”.

Supreme Court Rules Boston Unconstitutionally Banned Christian Flag From City Hall : NPR
Supreme Court Rules Boston Unconstitutionally Banned Christian Flag From City Hall : NPR

The city, fearing that a Christian flag would be considered unconstitutional government endorsement of a particular religion, denied the request, and Shurtleff challenged the denial, losing in two lower courts but winning in the Supreme Court on Monday.

The decision, written by Judge Stephen Breyer, managed to navigate a clash involving both religion and politics, without wreaking havoc. As Yale law professor Akhil Amar said in an interview with NPR, Breyer “hit the right place.” He was able to “take a complicated fact pattern and find the common denominator” that Boston had a “come one, come all” policy that did not apply to this Christian group.

“The key,” Breyer wrote, was how much control Boston actually had over the flag posts. And the answer, he said, was not at all. The city’s lack of meaningful involvement, he said, led the court to conclude that these flag raisings were not government speeches – where the government can control its message – but private speech, in fact religious speech, which cannot be regulated by the government.

But, in a nod to the city, Breyer noted that nothing is stopping Boston from changing its policies to exclude private speech in the future. It might, like San Jose, Calif., explicitly say that the flags are the talk of the town and not intended to serve as a forum for public self-expression. He could even require a member of the city council to sponsor a flag before it can be hoisted.

In fact, Boston suspended its policy last fall when the Supreme Court agreed to review the current policy, so all of those options are now on the table.

Three judges – Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas – accepted the outcome of the case, but rejected Breyer’s reasoning. They wrote 30 pages of concurring opinions. By contrast, the 13-page majority opinion was a classic Breyer, managing to achieve consensus in a restrained opinion that left both sides with a clearer idea of ​​what is and is not allowed.

It’s an approach that, as University of Georgia law professor Sonja West observes, “frustrates” some of Breyer’s conservative colleagues “who are eager to push the court further and faster, particularly on issues affecting religious speakers”. But on a ground deeply divided between liberals and conservatives of late, Breyer’s ability to bridge that divide will likely be sorely missed when he retires at the end of term this summer.

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