In front of Boston City Hall are three flags: the American flag, the state flag, and the City of Boston flag. Occasionally the city lets private groups raise a flag on the city’s pole, often a flag of another country when its leader visits the city. But a case before the US Supreme Court could require the city to fly religious flags, in clear violation of the separation of church and state.
We believe raising such a flag would prove destructive to religion and to democracy.
As a Jewish legal advocate and a Baptist minister, we support the arguments of Boston in this critical First Amendment case that Supreme Court justices will hear on Jan. 18. The wrong decision could upend two centuries of church-state separation and usher in a new era of forcing governments to endorse sectarian speech.
In 2017, a Christian group called Camp Constitution requested that the city fly a Christian flag that has a cross on it — an explicitly Christian symbol. Boston rightly denied the application, recognizing that it would amount to an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. Camp Constitution sued the city for violating its free speech rights.
The case revolves around the First Amendment and, surprisingly, both the Biden administration and the ACLU filed briefs in support of Camp Constitution. Their interpretation of the amendment is wrong.
Protecting the free speech of private individuals and groups is vitally important. But when the government flies a flag in front of city hall, the flag becomes the face of the government. City Hall has the duty to represent all citizens, not just those of a favored religion. When the city decides to display the LGBTQ Pride flag, or a flag recognizing St. Patrick’s Day, it’s signaling it endorses the messages behind those flags — and it has every right to do so. But the city cannot, by contrast, endorse a particular religion or religious message.
As a brief filed with the Supreme Court by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the National Council of Churches, and several Christian, Jewish, Hindu, atheist, and civil rights organizations explains, “Individuals who saw the Christian flag flying on the city’s flagpole would naturally assume that it conveys Boston’s own message.” People who go to a taxpayer-built facility to obtain basic civil services could perceive that their own government disfavors them before they even walk into the building.
Simply put, the government cannot choose winners and losers based on religion, and the courts should not compel governments to endorse sectarian messages. In a public building where everyone is supposed to be treated equally under the law, implicit messages of unequal status undermine the democratic principle of religious freedom.
Official endorsements of sectarian messages also harms religion. Some courts, including the Supreme Court, have ruled that long-standing religious symbols, like a Christian cross, can be used so often by the government that they lose their religious meaning. This should alarm devout people for whom religious symbols are important; secularizing them as public ornaments cheapens faith. A 2017 Pew Research Center poll on religious symbols shows that most Americans, religious or secular, think that Christian symbols on government property must be accompanied by those from other faiths, or that no religious displays should be allowed on government property at all.
Thomas Jefferson, although a flawed Founding Father, was one of our nation’s key architects on the issue of religion and government, which he got right. While president, Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptists in Connecticut and New York explaining that the First Amendment’s religion clauses had the effect of “building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
Now, 220 years later, that wall is under attack. A Supreme Court ruling requiring Boston to preach religious beliefs with its flagpoles would further chip away at this bulwark protecting both democracy and religion.
We’ve not yet lost faith in the American promise of true religious freedom for all. But we know it can only be preserved by a healthy separation of church and state. That’s a banner worth flying.
Rachel Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Brian Kaylor is president and editor in chief of Word&Way.