WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Monday that the city of Boston had violated the First Amendment when it refused to let a private group raise a Christian flag in front of its City Hall.
One of the three flagpoles in front of the building, which ordinarily flies the flag of Boston, is occasionally made available to groups seeking to celebrate their backgrounds or to promote causes like gay pride. In a 12-year period, the city approved 284 requests for the third flag.
It rejected only one, from Camp Constitution, which says it seeks “to enhance understanding of our Judeo-Christian moral heritage.” The group’s application said it sought to raise a “Christian flag” for one hour at an event that would include “short speeches by some local clergy focusing on Boston’s history.” The flag bore the Latin cross.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for six members of the court, said the central question in the case, Shurtleff v. City of Boston, No. 20-1800, was whether the city had created a public forum by allowing private groups to use its flagpole or was conveying its own speech by choosing and endorsing the flags it approved. When the government is speaking for itself, it is immune from First Amendment scrutiny.
“We conclude that Boston’s flag-raising program does not express government speech,” Justice Breyer wrote, adding that the city’s refusal to let “Camp Constitution fly their flag based on its religious viewpoint violated the free speech clause of the First Amendment.”
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett joined the majority opinion. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch agreed with the majority’s bottom line but not its rationale.