A Pyrrhic victory for religious symbolism

While much of the week’s legal news has centered on the leaked draft of a US Supreme Court that revealed that a majority of the court have decided to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the US, there was another ruling on Monday that has much less of a momentous impact, and that was the unanimous opinion that said that the city of Boston could not forbid the flying of a flag at city hall that had a cross on it.

The city of Boston violated the free speech rights of a Christian group by refusing to fly a flag bearing the image of a cross at city hall as part of a program that let private groups use the flagpole while holding events in the plaza below, the US supreme court ruled unanimously on Monday.

The 9-0 decision overturned a lower-court ruling that the rejection of Camp Constitution and its director, Harold Shurtleff, did not violate their rights to freedom of speech under the first amendment to the US constitution.

The dispute arose over Boston’s practice of allowing private groups to hold flag-raising events using one of three flagpoles on the plaza in front of City Hall. From 2005 to 2017, Boston approved all 284 applications it received – before rebuffing Camp Constitution. The vast majority of flags were those of foreign countries, but also included one for LGBTQ+ Pride.

At issue was whether the flagpole became a public forum meriting free speech protections under the first amendment to bar discrimination based on viewpoint, as the plaintiffs claimed, or whether it represented merely a conduit for government speech not warranting such protection, as Boston claimed.

This ruling should not come as a surprise. The court has long been reluctant to erect a strict barrier to religious symbols on state property and has allowed them as long as the symbols are either part of a general collection of symbols and are not exclusively the province of one particular religious group. This ruling fits into that pattern.

The group Camp Constitution, in addition to its religious beliefs, also promotes some of the wacky right wing tropes currently circulating.

The group’s stated mission is “to enhance understanding of our Judeo-Christian moral heritage” as well as “free enterprise”.

Among other topics, Camp Constitution’s website posts materials questioning the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines, claiming the US Capitol attack was a cover-up for “massive” 2020 election fraud, and calling Japan’s 1941 Pearl Harbor attack and al-Qaida’s 11 September 2001 attacks “carefully orchestrated false flags”.

By requiring the city of Boston (and by extension any government entity) to open its flag poles to pretty much all and sundry, that means that other groups can also demand such access and I was expecting to see the Satanic Temple immediately seize the opportunity and they did not waste any time.

A Satanic temple is requesting to fly a flag over Boston City Hall after the US supreme court this week ruled the city violated the free speech rights of a conservative activist seeking to fly a Christian flag outside the downtown complex.

The Salem-based group on Tuesday tweeted a copy of its request to raise a flag to mark what it termed Satanic Appreciation Week, from 23 to 29 July.

The group has lodged freedom of religion challenges nationwide, including a recent federal lawsuit arguing the Boston city council’s traditional opening prayer at its public meetings is discriminatory and unconstitutional.

It strikes me that this legal victory could well turn out to be a Pyrrhic one for the Christian groups suing. Most cities and state governments in the US operate in very Christian environments. When they have the discretion to make decisions as to what flags they fly on city property or what symbols to allow, they would not think twice about only allowing Christian ones and denying all others, especially those of groups like the Satanic Temple that challenge Christian orthodoxy. With this ruling, the Satanic Temple and a lot of other groups can demand and obtain equal access everywhere, so they are likely to be the bigger winners.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    As I understand the legal commentary on this, the SC judgment hinged on the fact that Boston had no formal policy regarding the flagpole before they denied the Christian whackaloons. So, all Boston has to do is to create a policy that says ‘This is property of the city of Boston, and as such, cannot be used to promote any religion’. So the nutjobs will have spent all those legal fees for nothing.

  2. moarscienceplz says

    I do however have to admire their chutzpah for calling Pearl Harbor a ‘false flag’. Even though WWII vets are very old now, I bet there are still one or two willing to beat these assholes with their canes.

  3. xohjoh2n says

    Meh, I think you’re misreading the decision. The key issue is that *after* allowing anyone else who asked permission to fly their own flags, they can’t then turn around and single out a group because of their religion.

    (Isn’t that one of the key aspects of separation of church and state? It *protects* minority religions by not pitting them against the State Church in a losing battle. Not that any of them ever seem to appreciate that.)

    Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see the reaction to the Satanic temple request:

    1. Attempt to block it and end up in court, again, with a good chance of losing, again.
    2. Allow it because everyone should have access if anyone does.
    3. Allow it specifically in the hope that it pisses off that Christian group.
    4. Close the programme and ban all third-party flags going forward, because they can’t stomach that being nice to people might mean they have to be nice to people they don’t like.

  4. moarscienceplz says

    None of the other flags mentioned were for religions. My statement stands.

  5. Deepak Shetty says


    This is property of the city of Boston, and as such, cannot be used to promote any religion

    This likely wont standup in court. If they allow anyone to fly a flag then they must allow religious ones too (The ” or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” will cause even liberal leaning judges to not allow such a thing)

    Besides the conservatives on the supreme court have already ruled that the cross by itself is not a religious symbol anymore 🙂

  6. ardipithecus says

    Heh. If the cross was a religious symbol by itself, they would have to call it the Supreme Cour.

  7. friedfish2718 says

    Why is it Pyrrhic victory for Christians? Being able to fly a Christian flag at City Hall of Boston will not be the downfall of Christianity. The Satanists want to fly their flag. So what? The Christians are not complaining. In the culture Christians have been fighting Satanists since the beginning of Christianity. Satanism predates Christianity and it is Satanism that is frustrated in being incapable to annihilate Christianity after so many centuries.
    This was a first amendment issue. As Mr Singham noted, the decision is UNANIMOUS: even Kagan and Sotomayor were on board. Free Speech thrives in a bazaar (noisy, chaotic, smelly), NOT in a cathedral (silent, solemn, orderly).
    Is Mr Singham a crypto-Satanist? many Satanists do not believe in God.

  8. Holms says

    The Satanists want to fly their flag. So what? The Christians are not complaining.

    You must live in an isolated pocket of christianity if you believe this.

  9. lochaber says

    wtf even is a “crypto-Satanist”

    That sounds like some weird fundy bullshit

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