A flag bearing a red Christian cross was raised at Boston’s City Hall Plaza Wednesday, concluding a First Amendment legal saga that reached the Supreme Court after city authorities denied an application to fly the banner in 2017.
“We have a great Constitution and we have a wonderful First Amendment, but just like when it comes to muscles, if you don’t use it, you get weak,” Harold Shurtleff, a former West Roxbury resident who originally applied for a permit to fly the flag five years ago in connection with Constitution Day, told a crowd of dozens on a sweltering Wednesday morning at City Hall Plaza.
In May, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that city officials violated the First Amendment rights of Camp Constitution, a Christian group Shurtleff runs, by refusing to fly the flag.
Wednesday’s flag-raising ceremony represented a victory celebration for Shurtleff and Liberty Counsel, the organization that represented him in the legal challenge.
Mathew D. Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, noted that the city’s rejection of Shurtleff’s application marked the only time the city refused to fly a flag, having approved 284 requests from various countries, causes, businesses, and organizations between 2005 and 2017.
“Your viewpoint was excluded from this flagpole public forum,” Staver told the crowd.
Shurtleff and Staver raised the banner while “Amazing Grace” was performed on violin and trumpet.
A couple of people carried placards that read “9-0,” a reference to the unanimous Supreme Court decision. Another sign proclaimed that if the flags of China and Cuba and the gay pride flag can fly at City Hall, then the Christian banner could, too. Some held miniature versions of the disputed flag: a white banner featuring a blue square and red cross in its upper left corner.
The rhetoric was nationalistic and religious, with some speakers proclaiming the United States to be a Christian nation at its root. Communism was denounced as godless and oppressive, and one speaker read a passage from the Old Testament. The US Constitution was hailed. A group of high school students walked by, clearly puzzled by the event.
One of the attendees wore a T-shirt saying “Make America Godly Again,” and another had “Jesus” tattooed on one arm and “Saves” on the other. John Hugo, president of Super Happy Fun America, a controversial organization that has ties to the far-right and has hosted a “Straight Pride Parade” and pro-police rally in Boston, was in the crowd.
Liberty Counsel has been criticized as anti-LGBTQ, a charge Staver batted away earlier this week.
The ceremony came a day after three Boston city councilors filed an ordinance that would require a mayoral proclamation or city council resolution to fly a flag on City Hall Plaza. The ordinance, which has the support of Mayor Michelle Wu, is intended to enable the city to celebrate flag raisings while bringing Boston into compliance with the high court’s decision.
At a separate event on Wednesday, Wu acknowledged the flag-raising and praised the proposed ordinance she said would clarify the city’s flag policy in line with the Supreme Court decision.
“We hope to see action from the council so that we can get back to it,” she said. “Flag raisings on City Hall Plaza have been some of the most beloved annual traditions as we celebrate the cultures and communities that make up our city, so those have been on pause throughout the course of these legal proceedings, and we’re eager to resume those and celebrate once again with our community members.”
In the Supreme Court decision, Justice Stephen Breyer, who has since retired, said, “While the historical practice of flag-flying at government buildings favors Boston, the city’s lack of meaningful involvement in the selection of flags or the crafting of their messages leads us to classify the flag raisings as private, not government, speech — though nothing prevents Boston from changing its policies going forward.”
On Wednesday, city officials looked as if they had prepared for a possible disturbance. There were metal barricades in front of the flagpoles and there were at least a dozen uniformed police officers stationed by the nearby Government Center MBTA stop.
But beyond a couple of hecklers and protesters, there was no counter-demonstration. Outside the metal barricades, a pair of protesters held signs. “Separation of church & state,” read one. “Dear Christians, Your persecution fetish has no place here. Go home!” read the other.
One man arrived carrying a sign that read “[Expletive] Jesus,” a message that he yelled repeatedly as speakers addressed the crowd through a public address system, along with “There is no God but chaos!”
Multiple speakers tried to engage with the heckler, with Staver acknowledging that he had a right to voice his opinion.
Nearby, a crew of construction workers looked on with amused expressions. A few laughed.
No City Hall dignitaries joined the speakers on the stage, a departure from some past flag-raising ceremonies.
The Christian flag flew on a pole, next to the US, state, and prisoner-of-war banners, for less than an hour. The ceremony ended with the crowd singing “God Bless America.”
After the Supreme Court’s decision, the Salem-based Satanic Temple also applied to fly its flag at City Hall Plaza. Lucien Greaves, a cofounder and spokesman for that organization, said Wednesday he has not heard from the city in months about the group’s application.
“Boston being Boston, they’ll probably ignore us and we’ll probably go to litigation,” Greaves said. “If they don’t allow us to raise our flag, we’ll sue.”
Globe correspondents Jeremy C. Fox and Alexander Thompson contributed to this report.