FFRF encourages city of Boston’s opposition to Christian flag

Christian Flag

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is delighted to join in a brief supporting the city of Boston’s constitutionally correct opposition to residents who want it to fly a Christian flag.

Several leading secular organizations have combined with many minority religious groups in an amicus effort in Shurtleff v. City of Boston, a case pending in the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The case concerns the attempt by some residents of Boston to legally coerce the city to fly the Christian flag (a white flag with a blue rectangle in the corner inset with a blood-red Latin cross) in front of City Hall in place of the city flag and next to the U.S. and the Massachusetts flags. The trial court upheld the city’s policy, concluding that forcing Boston to fly the Christian flag would violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause because it would promote a particular faith and entangle government with religion. The brief urges the 1st Circuit to affirm that decision. It argues that aligning governmental and religious symbols would violate fundamental constitutional principles and the Founders’ intent that government not play favorites in matters of religion.

“By ordaining that civil government and religious authorities operate in separate spheres, the Framers sought to safeguard religious freedom for all: When free from governmental influence and interference, religions may grow organically, letting all worship and pray, or not, according to the dictates of their conscience,” the brief states. “Thus, the First Amendment does not allow government to express support or preference for any faith or denomination, no matter how modest or benign in intent that expression may seem.”

Flying the Christian flag would send a deeply discriminatory and exclusionary signal to Bostonians who adhere to minority religions or no religion at all.

“Because religious symbols are powerful expressions of ideas, for many people it would be profoundly affirming to see a flag promoting their own religion flying outside city hall,” the brief declares. “But to those who do not subscribe to the beliefs represented by the flag, the display instead may send a stigmatizing message of exclusion from the political community.”

A full one-third of Boston city residents identify as “Nones” while a further 10 percent follow faiths other than Christianity, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey. So a large proportion of Bostonians, approaching half the population, would feel ostracized due to an governmental endorsement of Christianity. 

The brief reminds the appellate court that the constitutional ideal is to have official entities steer clear of religious matters.

“The Establishment Clause commands that government stay out of contentious theological disputes as a means to ensure religious freedom for all,” it contends. “Disallowing official religious displays implies no disrespect for religion, for it is not anti-religious to say that matters of faith and belief are best left to individuals, families, and their houses of worship, free from the heavy hand of government.”

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and Boston city officials would best serve the Cradle of Liberty by adhering to that approach.

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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