Hal Shurtleff, a West Roxbury resident and former John Birch Society member, is suing the city for refusing to let him fly a flag with a prominent cross on on one of the three flagpoles at City Hall Plaza for a pro-Christian event he wants to hold on City Hall Plaza on Sept. 17.
The city denied his similar flag request last year; this year, he followed through with a threat to file a federal lawsuit over his "Constitution Day" commemoration, which this year will include a talk on "the need for racial reconciliation through Jesus Christ."
In his lawsuit, filed in US District Court in Boston by his lawyer in Agawam and the Liberty Counsel, a non-profit Florida group that represents evangelical Christians, Shurtleff, who runs a New Hampshire summer camp at which kids can learn "how to be a freedom activist," charges Boston is depriving him of his First Amendment rights.
The suit notes that in the past the city has flown the Portuguese flag:
The five blue shields of the Portuguese flag represents the five moor kings defeated by the first King of Portugal, D. Afonso Henriques at the Battle of Ourique. The dots inside the blue shields represent the five wounds of Christ when crucified. Counting the dots and doubling those five in the center, there are thirty dots that represents the coins Judas received for having betrayed Christ.
The city responds that Shurtleff is free to hold an event on City Hall Plaza, as have other religious groups, but says the flagpoles themselves have never been a "public forum" where anybody can express anything they want. Instead, the city says, they have always been used solely to express the government's own viewpoints, and one of those is to not allow religious flags that might look as if the city is endorsing the views behind them.
City attorneys note the US Supreme Council ruled, in a case involving similar arguments, that Texas had the right to reject a demand for license plates featuring a Confederate flag.
Finally, if the City was required to permit any and all flags to fly in front of City Hall, it would have untenable and absurd consequences. If the City wanted to fly the LGBT rainbow flag, it would also have to fly the Ku Klux Klan flag. If the City wanted to fly the flag of the Dominican Republic, it would also have to fly the Nazi flag. Such a ruling would force the City to associate itself with positions that are deeply offensive to residents and visitors alike. The City should not be forced to place its imprimatur on these messages and symbols that are inconsistent with the City’s message.
Plus, they continue, letting a primarily Christian flag fly from a city pole would likely violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the one that calls for separation of church and state.
Judge Denise Casper heard oral arguments from the two sides on Aug. 9, but has yet to issue a ruling.