The Supreme Court has agreed to take up a case over local officials’ refusal to fly a Christian group’s pennant outside Boston City Hall.
In a brief order list addressing cases that accumulated over the summer, the justices indicated they will review an appeals court ruling issued in January that found the city did not violate the Constitution by turning down the flag-flying request from a Christian organization called “Camp Constitution.”
The case could provide an opportunity for the court’s relatively new, six-justice conservative majority to expand the rights of religious groups and individuals to use public facilities to advance their views.
The dispute involves the Christian group’s desire to fly a white flag bearing a red cross over a blue square in the upper left corner from an 83-foot flagpole outside the seat of Boston’s city government. Two of the three flagpoles at City Hall are used to fly the U.S. flag (along with a POW/MIA flag) and the Massachusetts state flag.
However, the City of Boston flag that customarily flies from the third flagpole has been lowered on numerous occasions and replaced with flags of various groups or causes, including gay pride, and foreign countries, including Albania, Italy, Portugal, Mexico, China, Cuba and Turkey. Some of those flags contain religious symbols.
The alternate flags flew on at least 284 occasions over the 12-year period, often in connection with events groups held at City Hall, according to the decision from the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals.
But city officials rejected the Christian group’s flag on the basis it would appear to convey an endorsement of particular religious views.
Despite the frequent substitution of the city flag with others, a three-judge appeals court panel unanimously ruled that rejecting the Christian group’s flag did not violate the organization’s free-speech rights or amount to a violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition on establishment of a religion.
“The City has never before displayed such a flag and, as such, this pioneering elevation of an ‘important symbol’ of the Christian heritage would come without the secular context or importance that the passage of time may have afforded other displays,” Judge Bruce Selya wrote in the 1st Circuit opinion.
“The raising of the Christian Flag thus would threaten to communicate and endorse a purely religious message on behalf of the City. Where that endorsement is as widely visible and accessible as it is here, and where the City could run the risk of repeatedly coordinating the use of government property with hierarchs of all religions, the City’s establishment concerns are legitimate.”
The Christian group is represented by a religious-freedom advocacy organization, Liberty Counsel.
The Supreme Court is likely to hear arguments in the case early next year and issue a ruling by early July.