“The Supreme Court, in an increasingly familiar development, handed a victory to a Christian conservative organization on Monday. The Court’s decision in Shurtleff v. Boston establishes that this organization, Camp Constitution, should have been allowed to fly a Christian-identified flag from a flagpole outside Boston’s city hall.
But Shurtleff is unlike several other high-profile victories for religious conservatives that the Court has handed down in recent years because the justices did not need to remake existing law in order to reach this result. The decision was unanimous (although the justices split somewhat regarding why the plaintiffs in this case should prevail), with liberal Justice Stephen Breyer writing the majority opinion.
The case involves three flagpoles standing outside of Boston’s city hall. The first flagpole displays the US flag, with a smaller flag honoring prisoners of war and missing service members below it. The second pole features the Massachusetts state flag. And the third typically — but not always — displays the city’s own flag.
This third flagpole, and the city’s practice of sometimes allowing outside groups to display a flag of their choice from it, is the centerpiece of Shurtleff. Since at least 2005, the city has permitted outside groups to hold flag-raising ceremonies on the plaza during which they can raise a flag of their choosing on the third flagpole.
At various times, the third flagpole has displayed the flags of many nations, including Brazil, China, Ethiopia, Italy, Mexico, and Turkey. It has displayed the rainbow LGBTQ pride flag, a flag commemorating the Battle of Bunker Hill, and a flag honoring Malcolm X.
But when Harold Shurtleff, head of an organization called Camp Constitution, asked to fly a flag associated with the Christian faith, the city refused — claiming that displaying such a flag could be interpreted as “an endorsement by the city of a particular religion,” in violation of “separation of church and state or the [C]onstitution.”
Justice Breyer’s majority opinion concludes that the city erred. Relying on a bevy of cases establishing that the government typically cannot discriminate against a particular viewpoint, Breyer notes that “Boston concedes that it denied Shurtleff’s request solely because the Christian flag he asked to raise ‘promot[ed] a specific religion.’” Under the facts of this case, that’s a form of viewpoint discrimination and it’s not allowed.
While it’s notable that Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh each wrote separate opinions indicating that they are eager to let government get cozy with religion, and they have two opportunities to do so this term, this case is a straightforward decision that follows current law — in short, nothing remarkable.”
“The general rule in free speech cases is that the government may not discriminate against any particular viewpoint. Boston could not, for example, have a rule that Democrats are allowed to gather in the city hall plaza but not Republicans. Or that people who support restrictive immigration policies may do so, but not people who oppose them.
But there’s an exception to this general rule when the government speaks in its own voice. That is, the government is allowed to express its own opinion on a subject without also providing a forum for dissenting voices. If a public school principal tells her students to “say no to drugs,” she’s not required to give equal time to the grungy guy in the junior class who sells weed out of his 1997 Subaru Legacy.
The primary question in Shurtleff is whether, when Boston’s city government permitted a wide range of private groups — but not Camp Constitution — to display a flag of their choice outside of city hall, these flags represented the city’s speech or the private groups’ speech. Again, if the flags were a form of government speech, then Boston is allowed to exclude viewpoints it does not share.
But the Court concluded that the city did not use the third flagpole to express its own views, and that it effectively created “a forum for the expression of private speakers’ views.” As Breyer notes, Boston does not appear to have made any effort whatsoever to control which flags are displayed from this flagpole until it denied Shurtleff’s request to fly a Christian flag.”