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.