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Supreme Court agrees to review case involving right to fly Christian flag outside Boston City Hall

The US Supreme Court has agreed to review a case initially brought by a West Roxbury man in 2018 against the City of Boston, alleging the city violated his rights by denying his group the chance to fly a Christian flag with a cross on it in conjunction with an event on City Hall Plaza.

The high court on Thursday granted a request from the plaintiff, Harold Shurtleff, asking the panel to review the case, known as a petition for a writ of certiorari. It wasn’t clear Thursday when, or if, the high court would schedule oral arguments, or when it will issue a decision.

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Shurtleff, head of Camp Constitution, a public charitable trust, had argued in his civil complaint that his group was denied a permit in 2017 to raise a Christian flag on one of City Hall’s flag poles in connection with an event. He initially filed his suit against the city in 2018 in US District Court in Boston, where it was dismissed in February 2020, records show.

Shurtleff appealed that dismissal to the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which upheld the lower court ruling, according to legal filings. That prompted Shurtleff to file his petition for a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court.

According to Shurtleff’s suit, the city denied the request because Boston “maintains a policy and practice of respectfully refraining from flying non-secular flags on City Hall flagpoles.”

Gregory Rooney, Boston’s property management commissioner, said in an e-mail to Shurtleff that, “This policy and practice is consistent with well-established First Amendment jurisprudence prohibiting a local government ‘respecting an establishment of religion.’ “

He added, “This policy and practice is also consistent with city’s legal authority to choose how a limited government resource, like the City Hall flagpoles, is used.”

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The flag in question featured a red cross on a blue background bordered on three sides by a field of white.

Shurtleff wanted to raise the flag during an event to commemorate “the civic and social contributions of the Christian community to the City, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, religious tolerance, the Rule of Law, and the US Constitution.”

In the complaint, Camp Constitution said its mission is to “enhance understanding of the country’s Judeo-Christian moral heritage, the American heritage of courage and ingenuity, the genius of the United States Constitution, and the application of free enterprise.”

The suit asserted that Boston regularly flies or allows flags on City Hall flagpoles that contain explicit religious language and symbols.

The suit stated that the Boston city flag includes the city seal, which features a Latin inscription that means “God be with us as he was with our fathers.”

The suit said the city violated the freedom of speech rights of Shurtleff and Camp Constitution and asserted the city’s policies “are not neutral, but are invidious and hostile, towards religion.” It also argues the city’s actions are unconstitutional “because they treat displays of ‘non-secular’ flags differently than they treat displays of ‘secular’ flags.”

Attorneys for the city called for and won dismissal of the complaint, according to court documents.

The city’s attorneys argued that the city and Rooney’s actions “have at all times complied” with the First Amendment, and they did not violate “any constitutional, statutory, or common law rights, privileges, or immunities of the Plaintiffs.”

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Shurtleff had sought preliminary and permanent injunctions that would prompt the city to approve a permit to display banners, such as the Christian flag, on City Hall flagpoles.

He also sought damages and a declaratory judgment stating that the city’s policies regarding the flying of “non-secular” flags are legally invalid.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.