The city of Boston violated the free speech rights of a faith-based group when it refused to fly the organization’s Christian flag while approving the flags of numerous other groups, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The court’s 9-0 decision concerns a unique program in Boston that permits private groups to fly flags of their choosing outside Boston City Hall. The court noted that the city approved “hundreds of requests to raise dozens of different flags” – that is, until the Christian civic organization Camp Constitution requested that the Christian flag be flown.
The city of Boston declined the group’s request, arguing it would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Camp Constitution then sued but lost at the district court and the appeals court level.
On Monday, the Supreme Court said Boston’s action violated the Free Speech Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.
Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the court’s opinion. “The city did not deny a single request to raise a flag until” Harold Shurtleff of Camp Constitution made his request, Breyer wrote. He noted that the city had allowed flags of other countries, a flag of a bank, and the LGBT Pride flag to be flown.
“For the foregoing reasons, we conclude that Boston’s flagraising program does not express government speech,” Breyer wrote. “As a result, the city’s refusal to let Shurtleff and Camp Constitution fly their flag based on its religious viewpoint violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.”
Quoting a 2001 Supreme Court opinion, Breyer wrote, “When a government does not speak for itself, it may not exclude speech based on ‘religious viewpoint’; doing so ‘constitutes impermissible viewpoint discrimination.’”
Joining Breyer in the opinion were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Elana Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh. Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch concurred in the judgment and signed separate concurring opinions.
Liberty Counsel represented Camp Constitution.
“This 9-0 decision from the Supreme Court strikes a victory for private speech in a public forum,” said Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver. “This case is so much more significant than a flag. Boston openly discriminated against viewpoints it disfavored when it opened the flagpoles to all applicants and then excluded Christian viewpoints. Government cannot censor religious viewpoints under the guise of government speech.”
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Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.