In a unanimous ruling on Monday, the Supreme Court found the city of Boston had acted unconstitutionally when it refused to allow a man to raise a Christian flag in front of City Hall, the Washington Examiner reported.
The city had let other secular groups in the community raise their own flags.
In the ruling, written by departing liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, the court found that despite the religious nature of the flag, the case ultimately hinged on the right to free speech.
The ruling found that, by allowing other organizations to raise their own flags in front of City Hall but denying the man the right to raise a Christian flag, they had created an open forum which had excluded a man for his religious belief.
Harold Shurtleff and his group, Camp Constitution, had been denied use of one of three flagpoles outside the building the Massachusetts city reserves for groups to display commemorative banners.
“The city’s application form asked only for contact information and a brief description of the event, with proposed dates and times,” Breyer’s opinion read. “The city employee who handled applications testified that he did not request to see flags before the events.
Indeed, the city’s practice was to approve flag raisings without exception — that is, until petitioners’ request.
“At the time, Boston had no written policies or clear internal guidance about what flags groups could fly and what those flags would communicate.”
In a concurring opinion, conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh said the city of Boston had misinterpreted the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which reads that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
“A Boston official believed that the City would violate the Establishment Clause if it allowed a religious flag to briefly fly outside of City Hall as part of the flag-raising program that the City had opened to the public,” Kavanaugh wrote.
“So Boston granted requests to fly a variety of secular flags, but denied a request to fly a religious flag.”
“As this Court has repeatedly made clear, however, a government does not violate the Establishment Clause merely because it treats religious persons, organizations, and speech equally with secular persons, organizations, and speech in public programs, benefits, facilities, and the like.”
“On the contrary, a government violates the Constitution when (as here) it excludes religious persons, organizations, or speech” from those benefits, Kavanaugh wrote.
City Hall had yet to decide on a course of action in reaction to the unanimous ruling.
“As we consider next steps, we will ensure that future City of Boston programs are aligned with this decision,” said a spokesperson for Democrat Mayor Michelle Wu.
Last October, the city had suspended the program “in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to consider whether the program as currently operated complies with Constitutional requirements,” a city website stated.