It wasn’t the highest profile case of the term, but the U.S. Supreme Court recently issued a ruling in case called Shurtleff v. Boston, which as regular readers may recall, was an interesting First Amendment dispute.
The case was relatively straightforward: Boston’s city hall generally flies national, state, and city flags on its public flag poles, though there are occasional exceptions. On Pride Day, for example, Boston will fly a rainbow flag. If foreign dignitaries visit Boston, the city’s flag poles will feature the flag of the foreign officials’ countries.
With this mind, Harold Shurtleff, who represents a group called Camp Constitution, applied to have Boston fly a white flag with a red cross. He described it as a “Christian flag,” at which point the city declined his request: A local commissioner concluded that Boston’s city hall had to remain neutral on matters of faith. To fly a “Christian flag” at city hall would amount to a city endorsement of Christianity.
Shurtleff sued and this week, in a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court said he was right. NBC News reported, “[T]he Supreme Court said the city could not censor a religious message in what amounted to a kind of public form. Allowing the Christian flag to fly would not be an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion because it would merely treat religious and non-religious views the same, the court said.”
One day later, the local Satanic Temple had an idea. The Associated Press reported:
The Satanic Temple is requesting to fly a flag over Boston City Hall after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that the city violated the free speech rights of a conservative activist seeking to fly a Christian flag outside the downtown building. The Salem-based group tweeted a request filed Tuesday with the city property management department to raise a flag marking “Satanic Appreciation Week” from July 23-29.
Lucien Greaves, the organization’s co-founder, told the AP that the group wants to show that religious liberty must mean respect for “all forms” of religious practice and religious opinion.
As for what the Satanic Temple’s flag might look like, Greaves said the organization is still working on that, but one likely option “echoes the American flag, only with black and white stripes and an emblem of a pentagram and goat skull where the 50 stars would be.”
If any of this sounds at all familiar, it’s because this dynamic has come up before. Seven years ago, a public school board in the Orlando area agreed to allow an evangelical Christian group to distribute Bibles to school children — at which point the Satanic Temple asked for equal treatment. (They had some Satanic coloring books they wanted to share.)
If local officials refused, the temple would take the matter to court and win. After all, as we’ve discussed, the underlying First Amendment principle is always the same: When it comes to religion and public affairs, the government can’t play favorites.
The Orlando-area school board quickly backed down and said private religious groups would no longer be able to distribute faith-based materials in local public schools.
Will Boston do the same? The AP’s report added, “Mayor Michelle Wu’s office declined to comment on the group’s request other than to say it’s reviewing the high court’s decision while also evaluating its flag-raising program.”