Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court held oral arguments in an important free speech case. Shurtleff v. City of Boston deals with the city's decision to deny the application of an organization that wanted to fly the Christian flag on a city flagpole that is open to outside groups. Although lower courts sided with the city and against the organization wanting to fly the Christian flag, it appears the Supreme Court is poised to rule against Boston.
Here's some backstory on the case. From 2005 to 2017, outside organizations were given permission to fly a flag on one of three flagpoles outside Boston's city hall. On most days, the three flags flown are the American flag, the Massachusetts state flag, and the Boston city flag. However, on certain days, the Boston city flag is replaced by the flag of an outside group. Over the course of 12 years, 284 requests to fly flags on the third flagpole were approved. Among the flags approved were the rainbow flag, the transgender flag, and flags representing various ethnic groups in Boston.
However, when Camp Constitution, a group dedicated to educating citizens about the "Judeo-Christian moral heritage" of the United States, requested to fly the Christian flag for a 2017 event on the plaza in front of city hall, they were denied. This denial, the first by the city since they began allowing outside groups access to the flagpole, prompted Harold Shurtleff, the founder of Camp Constitution, to file suit against the city.
According to Mat Staver, the founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, who represents Shurtleff in the case, Boston discriminated against Camp Constitution because of its Christian beliefs. On "Washington Watch," Staver explained why he believes the city's actions were problematic:
After 12 years, 284 approvals, no denials, usually no review, one word caught the attention of a Boston official: the word "Christian" on the application. The flag itself was not the problem. But for the word "Christian" -- if you called it anything but "Christian," call it "Camp Constitution flag," they even suggested -- and the same flag would have flown for an hour with no incident at all, but it was the word "Christian" on the application.
Contrary to Boston's legal argument that the city's selection and presentation of flags on a city-owned flagpole constitutes government speech, Staver argued that the case is about viewpoint discrimination.
After losing twice at the lower court and twice again at the Court of Appeals, Staver predicts that the U.S. Supreme Court will side with Camp Constitution with "a supermajority, if not a nine to zero decision." Staver continued, "Even Justices Kagan and Breyer asked the city why they didn't settle the case after they made this mistake. Why did they not just settle it and move on instead of defending it as government speech?"
The consequences of the Supreme Court's decision will extend beyond this case. Staver explained, "It's not just about a flag... If we lose, the consequences would be that places like after school clubs that open up the facilities for a wide variety of secular meetings could slam the door on good news clubs, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Bible clubs, common library or public rooms where people gather for public meetings. Various kinds of private activities could be slammed on people who have a Christian viewpoint."
On the other hand, a win for Camp Constitution would mean that the trend toward greater public hostility towards Christians would suffer a setback. Although a decision in the case is not expected until June, Staver is hopeful. "I think we had favorable reception from a wide spectrum of justices."