Boston’s City Hall Plaza has a flagpole that local officials claim is intended “to create an environment in the city where everyone feels included.” Unless, that is, you happen to want to display a flag representing followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Hal Shurtleff, co-founder of the Camp Constitution educational group, encountered this glaring hypocrisy not long ago when he filled out the required form for those seeking to display their flags on the flagpole. He didn’t expect any problems because the city says on its website that “we commemorate flags from many countries and communities at Boston City Hall Plaza.”
Shurtleff accurately described the flag he wanted to display as the “Christian Flag.” No surprise there since Camp Constitution seeks “to enhance understanding of our Judeo-Christian moral heritage ….” And, while America is not now and never officially has been a “Christian nation,” it was and remains a nation founded on that moral heritage.
Had Shurtleff been able to proceed as he planned, the Boston City Hall Plaza flagpole would have displayed the flag for about an hour on Constitution Day in 2017. The Christian flag is mostly white with a blue field in the upper left-hand corner, bearing a red cross. Odds are good you’ve seen the flag if you’ve ever attended, for example, a Southern Baptist Sunday service
But that one word, Christian, prompted Boston city officials to deny Shurtleff’s application to display his flag. It was the first such denial ever by the city storied for the Boston Tea Party and much else that is noble in American history.
So Shurtleff, with representation by the Orlando, Florida-based Liberty Counsel public interest law firm headed by Matt and Anita Staver, took the city of Boston to federal court hoping to uphold the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion and speech. And to make Boston live up to its claims of tolerance and inclusiveness for everybody.
Shurtleff had hoped to commemorate “the civic and cultural contributions of the Christian community to the city of Boston, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, religious tolerance, the Rule of Law, and the U.S. Constitution.”
And he thought he had good reason to expect to be able to do so, given the history of the flagpole, as described by Liberty Counsel in a recent news release:
“Over the course of 12 years, the city approved 284 flag-raisings by private organizations on the city hall flagpoles without denial except for the Christian flag. Other flags raised include the Turkish flag (which depicts the Islamic star and crescent) and the Portuguese flag (which uses religious imagery).
“City officials have also never denied the ‘messages’ communicated by the ‘Chinese Progressive Association,’ the rainbow flag of Boston Pride, and a ‘transgender’ pink and blue flag.
“The flags of private community groups include Albania, Brazil, Ethiopia, Italy, Panama, Peru, Portugal, Puerto Rico, and Mexico, as well as of Communist China and Cuba. No flag was ever denied until the city denied the flag of Camp Constitution.”
Shurtleff has lost a couple of rounds, as the lower federal courts have consistently sided with Boston officials. According to Liberty Counsel, that’s because the courts are wrong:
“Despite the clear evidence presented at trial, the First Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the city of Boston’s censorship of the Christian viewpoint on the public forum, a place designated as a ‘public forum’ by Boston’s written policy and confirmed by its unbroken practice during which it never censored private speech – until Camp Constitution’s application. The Court of Appeals expanded the government speech cases far beyond Supreme Court precedent.”
The case is headed to the Supreme Court, and Liberty Counsel is confident of a win for multiple reasons. For one thing, the application form designates the flag pole as a “public forum,” which puts it squarely under the First Amendment’s protection requirements. Also, the fact the city had not previously censored any flag application, even though several, notably that of Turkey, included religious elements.
Liberty Counsel’s Matt Staver puts it this way:
“We look forward to the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledging the city’s obvious and unconstitutional discrimination against Camp Constitution’s Christian viewpoint. 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 and this must stop.”