BOSTON, Mass. — A federal judge appointed to the bench by then-President Barack Obama has sided with Boston officials who denied a group’s request to fly the Christian flag outside of city hall during an event celebrating the religious history of the city and the contributions made by Christians.
According to reports, the group Camp Constitution sought to host an event in September 2017 in front of city hall, which would include short speeches by local pastors outlining the religious history of the city of Boston. September 17 is recognized as “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day” by federal statute.
According to the Camp Constitution website, the group exists “to enhance understanding of our Judeo-Christian moral heritage, our American heritage of courage and ingenuity, including the genius of our United States Constitution, and the application of free enterprise, which together gave our nation an unprecedented history of growth and prosperity, making us the envy of the world.”
Boston officials allow groups to apply to temporarily fly their flags for various celebrations; therefore, Camp Constitution representative Hal Shurtleff applied for permission to raise the Christian flag on one of the flagpoles in City Hall Plaza while the Constitution Day event was underway.
Other flags that were approved to be flown include the rainbow flag for homosexual Pride Month, as well as a blue, pink and white flag to recognize those who identify as transgender.
“Proud to fly the #TransFlag over Boston City Hall for the 1st time in MA history—a sign that everyone is welcome,” Mayor Marty Walsh tweeted in 2016.
The Boston flag, which normally flies in City Hall Plaza, includes the city’s long-held motto “Sicut Patribus, Sit Deus Nobis,” which means “God be with us as He was with our fathers.”
However, when Hal Shurtleff of Camp Constitution applied to fly the Christian flag for his event celebrating the religious history of Boston and the contributions of Christians, his request was denied.
Gregory Rooney, the commissioner of the Property Management Department, advised in writing that “[t]he City of Boston maintains a policy and practice of respectfully refraining from flying non-secular flags on the city hall flagpoles.”
He said that the City’s policy was based on the First Amendment’s “establishment of religion” clause, and outlined that he would consider a request to fly a non-religious flag, which Shurtleff declined. Camp Constitution consequently obtained legal representation, which wrote to the City to contend that the denial was unconstitutional.
As officials did not respond, Shurtleff tok the matter to court.
“Defendants’ policies, practices, and actions are unconstitutional because they treat displays of ‘non-secular’ flags differently than they treat displays of ‘secular’ flags,” the lawsuit, filed by Liberty Counsel, read.
“Defendants violated Plaintiffs’ right to Freedom of Speech under Article 16 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights by preventing Plaintiffs from displaying the Christian flag as part of a celebration of the Christian community and America’s Judeo-Christian heritage to be held at defendants’ designated public fora at City Hall Plaza and the city hall flagpoles,” it asserted.
Read the lawsuit in full here.
However, on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Denise Casper rejected Shurtleff’s motion for summary judgment, opining that the flag could convey a government endorsement of Christianity.
“Certainly, an event to ‘raise the Christian flag’ could serve some of Plaintiffs’ cited secular purposes, such as the celebration of religious freedom in Boston and the contributions of Boston’s Christian residents to the city. However, its primary purpose would be to convey government endorsement of a particular religion by displaying the Christian flag alongside that of the United States and the Commonwealth in front of city hall,” she wrote.
“Blowing in the wind, these side-by-side flags could quite literally become entangled,” Casper ruled. “If Plaintiffs were not seeking government endorsement, then Plaintiffs would presumably be content to raise their own flag on their own in the same location as has been suggested.”
She rejected Camp Constitution’s contention that the group was being treated differently than others, as it had noted some of the various flags that have been approved, which contain religious references. Casper concluded that religion was secondary to the purpose of those flags and could not be compared to the Christian flag.
“As evidence of their differential treatment, Plaintiffs cite the display of the flags of Portugal, the City of Boston and the Bunker Hill Association—all of which feature references to God and Christ—on the City flagpole,” she explained. “Plaintiffs are correct that under the City’s unwritten policy, there may be some close cases regarding which flags are ‘non-secular,’ but these examples are not among them.”
“The Christian flag primarily represents a specific religion, while the other cited flags represent a sovereign nation, a city government and a group committed to remembering a military victory,” Casper said. “Therefore, Plaintiffs are not similarly situated to the sponsors of the Portuguese, City of Boston and Bunker Hill Association flag events and have failed to make out a claim of differential treatment in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Camp Constitution has expressed disappointment in the outcome of the case.
“Apparently, everyone is welcome in Boston except Christians. The primary purpose of flying the flag being to convey government endorsement means that Christians are—at best—tolerated, while those advocating behaviors traditionally considered deviant and perverse are in fact endorsed. Make of that what you will,” it said in a statement.
“The Constitution does not allow the city to treat Camp Constitution and other Christian organizations differently from all others who are allowed to raise their flags for important events,” also remarked Roger Gannam of Liberty Counsel.
It is not known whether the group plans to appeal.
Massachusetts is known for being the home of Plymouth Colony, inhabited by the Puritans, a group of Christians who broke away from the Church of England as they were concerned that the Church had retained too many Roman Catholic practices. Their desire was to return to the purity of the Early Church, hence the term “Puritans.”
William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth Colony, detailed the heart of the people to serve and honor Jesus Christ in his book “Of Plymouth Plantation.” The Mayflower Compact also notes that the Puritans established the colony “for the glory of God and [the] advancement of the Christian faith.”