Shurtleff v. City of Boston
The City of Boston allows community groups to hold flag-raising ceremonies and display flags of their choosing on one of the flagpoles near City Hall. After granting permits for nearly 300 different flag raisings, Boston issued its first permit denial in 2017 when Camp Constitution asked to fly a flag with a red Latin cross. This case made it to the United States Supreme Court after Boston and the lower courts relied on an outdated understanding of the Establishment Clause—called the Lemon test—to justify Boston’s religious censorship. Becket is asking the Court to formally overrule the confusing Lemon test and to clarify that religious voices are welcome in the public square.
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Permit application to raise a Christian flag denied
Outside of Boston’s City Hall, three flagpoles stand. The city ordinarily flies the United States flag on one pole, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts flag on another, and the third flagpole’s flag often varies. In order to celebrate Boston’s diversity, the city allows outside, private groups to hold flag-raising ceremonies and display a flag of their choosing on the third pole. These flags can celebrate other countries, cultures and causes.
Between 2005 and 2017, the city approved all 284 flag requests it received. The first denial came in 2017 when Camp Constitution, a religious volunteer organization, asked to raise a flag featuring a red Latin cross to commemorate Constitution Day. Boston decided it would not allow a “religious” flag out of “concern for the so-called separation of church and state.” The message was clear—no religious speech allowed.
Boston’s decision was wrong, but it’s not alone. Government officials have used similar reasoning to exclude religious speech from public spaces and even to deny disaster relief funds to churches and synagogues damaged by hurricanes.
Courts ignore the Constitution
Harold Shurtleff, cofounder of Camp Constitution, sued the City of Boston for its discriminatory permit denial. Applying an outdated interpretation of the Establishment Clause called the Lemon test, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit concluded that Boston was correct to censor religious speech. Shurtleff then appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The Court granted review of the case and heard oral argument on January 18, 2022.
Understanding the Establishment Clause
On November 22, 2021, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, pointing out that this mistake happened because Boston’s city officials (and the lower courts) misunderstand the Establishment Clause. Government officials who have an outdated understanding of the Establishment Clause often ban religious elements from the public square simply because they are religious.
This error isn’t limited to Boston. For years, government officials (with approval from lower courts) have been censoring religious expression from the public square in fear of violating the Constitution. Many mistakenly think that exclusion of religion is the safest option. This mistake goes beyond a flagpole—similar reasoning has been used to prohibit religious groups from advertising on trains and buses, exclude religious schools from generally available funding programs, and even deny FEMA aid to churches and synagogues damaged by hurricanes.
The widespread misunderstanding of the Establishment Clause dates back to the 1970s, when courts started to rely on the Lemon test. This legal test is a vague standard that not only ignores history but also has created a mess of Establishment Clause jurisprudence. Becket asked the Supreme Court to formally overrule Lemon so that the hostile censorship against religion in the public square is stopped, once and for all.
On May 2, 2022, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in the case.