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Federal judge rules Boston can deny request to fly Christian flag over City Hall Plaza

A federal judge in Boston said the city was justified in denying a group’s request to fly a Christian flag from a municipal flagpole.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/Globe Staff/file

A federal judge in Boston ruled Wednesday that city officials were justified in denying a group’s request to fly a Christian flag from a municipal flagpole in conjunction with events scheduled for September.

In an 18-page ruling, US District Court Judge Denise J. Casper denied West Roxbury resident Harold Shurtleff’s request for a preliminary injunction to force the city to allow Camp Constitution, which Shurtleff directs, to fly a Christian flag on a pole at City Hall Plaza during the camp’s Constitution Day and Citizenship Day events.

Shurtleff can still press forward with his lawsuit against the city. A status conference is scheduled for Sept. 24. Universal Hub first reported on Casper’s ruling.


Casper wrote that the city’s policy against flying nonsecular flags is “reasonable based on the City’s interest in avoiding the appearance of endorsing a particular religion and a consequential violation of the Establishment Clause. . . . As the City has done in the past, it will allow Plaintiffs to hold an event on City Hall Plaza. It will also give Plaintiffs the opportunity to . . . display the Christian flag while on City Hall Plaza” but not on the pole.

Shurtleff and Camp Constitution, Casper wrote, “have not established a substantial likelihood of success on the merits” of their lawsuit, so “it makes little sense to require the City to fly the requested flag pending the adjudication of this case. Raising the Christian flag might also possibly make the City vulnerable to Establishment Clause claims and other constitutional challenges before this case had been decided on the merits.”

Shurtleff, 59, said in his civil complaint that Camp Constitution, a public charitable trust, was denied a permit last year to raise a Christian flag on one of City Hall’s flagpoles in connection with an event.

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.”


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

Shurtleff wants to raise the flag 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,” records show.

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.”

Shurtleff’s complaint also asserted that the city regularly flies or allows other flags on City Hall flagpoles that contain explicit religious language and symbols.

Casper indicated in Monday’s ruling that she was not persuaded by that argument.

“As evidence of their differential treatment, Plaintiffs cite . . . the display of the flags of Portugal, the City of Boston and the Bunker Hill Association — all of which feature references to God and Christ — on the City flagpole,” Casper wrote.

However, she said, those flags are different from the one that Shurtleff’s group wants to raise.

“The Christian flag primarily represents a specific religion, while the other cited flags represent a sovereign nation, a city government and a group committed to remembering a military victory,” Casper wrote.

Unlike the Christian flag, the other cited flags do not serve primarily to “advance or inhibit religion,” she wrote.


Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.