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Explainer: Supreme Court unanimously upholds free speech in Boston flag case

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May 2, 2022

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the city of Boston violated the First Amendment rights of petitioners Harold Shurtleff and his organization, Camp Constitution, by refusing to allow the group to fly the Christian flag in front of City Hall. The court’s decision today is a win for free speech. Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the court, with Chief Justice Roberts,  and Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, Kavanaugh, and Barrett joining. Other justices filed concurring opinions.

ERLC Acting President Brent Leatherwood stated of this victory:

“In a unanimous decision, the Court today resoundingly shot down the city of Boston’s incompetent attempt to abridge the free speech rights of an individual and his organization for communicating a ‘religious viewpoint.’​ The opinion of the Court lines up with many of the themes of the brief joined by the ERLC in this case. We view this decision as a welcome addition to our nation’s First Amendment jurisprudence.

The reality is, had Boston continued with its established track record of approving every request that came in, this issue never would have been adjudicated. Given the united admonition of Boston’s unconstitutional actions, I’m sure the city now wishes it had simply granted Mr. Shurtleff’s request in the first place.”

What is this case about?

The City of Boston manages three flagpoles in front of its City Hall. Typically, those flagpoles fly the American flag and the POW/MIA flag on one flagpole, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts flag on the second, and Boston’s own local flag on the third. The City occasionally, upon request and approval, will fly another flag for a brief period of time rather than Boston’s flag, typically in conjunction with an event happening at City Hall.

In 2017, Harold Shurtleff, through his organization, Camp Constitution, petitioned to host an event at Boston City Hall, raise a Christian flag, and have members of the clergy speak about the religious history of Boston, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the Constitution. The City denied Camp Constitution’s request to fly the Christian flag.

As noted in Justice Breyer’s opinion,

“As part of this program, Boston approved hundreds of requests to raise dozens of different flags. The city did not deny a single request to raise a flag until, in 2017, Harold Shurtleff, the director of a group called Camp Constitution, asked to fly a Christian flag. Boston refused. At that time, Boston admits, it had no written policy limiting use of the flagpole based on the content of a flag. The parties dispute whether, on these facts, Boston reserved the pole to fly flags that communicate governmental messages, or istead opened the flagpole for citizens to express their own views.”

Justice Breyer goes on to note, “Boston acknowledges that it denied Shurtleff ’s request because it believed flying a religious flag at City Hall could violate the Establishment Clause. And it admits this concern proceeded from the premise that raising the flag would express government speech.”

Following this denial, Camp Constitution sued the City of Boston claiming a violation of the organization’s First Amendment rights. Both the district court and U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled in favor of the City, and the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case on Jan. 18.

Why does this decision matter?

This case provided another victory in free speech jurisprudence, affirming the First Amendment rights of all organizations, including religious organizations, and clarifying the understanding of the Establishment Clause, with implications for religious speech at other limited public forums such as schools, city halls, and public libraries.

Becket Law stated that “Boston and the lower courts relied on an outdated understanding of the Establishment Clause [that] often ban[s] religious elements from the public square simply because they are religious.” They continue:

“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.”

This case helps to clarify that misconception. In his concurrence, Justice Kavanaugh addresses this point,

“As this Court has repeatedly made clear, however, a government does not violate the Establishment Clause merely because it treats religious persons, organizations, and speech equally with secular persons, organizations, and speech in public programs, benefits, facilities, and the like. . . On the contrary, a government violates the Constitution when (as here) it excludes religious persons, organizations, or speech because of religion from public programs, benefits, facilities, and the like. . . Under the Constitution, a government may not treat religious persons, religious organizations, or religious speech as second-class.”

How did the ERLC engage this case?

The ERLC joined an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to rule in favor of Camp Constitution. Our brief argued that the City of Boston violated the Free Exercise Clause and Establishment Clause and wrongly discriminated against the speech of an organization. As reasoned in our brief,

Providing organizations the opportunity to communicate on public property does not give the government the authority to discriminate based on the viewpoint of their speech, even when the forum is used at other times for the government’s own speech. That conclusion follows from both this Court’s forum analysis under the Free Speech Clause and its Free Exercise Clause precedents requiring religious organizations to be treated on a nondiscriminatory basis when government benefits are dispensed or restrictions imposed.

The ERLC believes our First Amendment rights travel together. A weakening of one is a weakening of all of the foundational rights contained in the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has taken a robust view of these foundational rights, and we are grateful that the justices once again ruled in favor of freedom of speech in the public square.

Policy Staff

The policy staff works on behalf of the Southern Baptist interests in the ERLC's Washington, D.C., office, the Leland House. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24