A HUGE 1st Amendment Verdict Is In!
(RightWing.org) – For many decades, state and local governments have walked the fine line of honoring religious rights. Many local governments have taken a stance that any religious symbols or speech on taxpayer-supported grounds is more than condoning religious discourse, which is not illegal but instead is government participation of religion in violation of the US Constitution.
On Monday, May 2, the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) cleared up any confusion that may exist. A unanimous court agreed that the City of Boston violated the Constitutional rights of a civic group that wanted to fly a Christian flag on one of three flag poles at City Hall in celebration of Constitution Day. So, was the flag religious speech by the city or the civic group?
When Does a Local Government Violate Free Speech and Expression of Religious People?
Harold Shurtleff, the director of Camp Constitution, requested that a flag bearing a red cross on a blue field hang on one of three city flag poles at City Hall Plaza in September 2017. The city denied his application, saying that a government could not endorse religious speech. So, Shurtleff sued the City of Boston for violating the civic group’s right to free speech, among other issues. Lower courts sided with the city.
However, the Supreme Court unanimously sided with Shurtleff, leaving zero doubt that the city violated the civic group’s Constitutional rights. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that the issue before the court was whether the flag-raising would be considered speech of the town. If so, the city could reject flags that it didn’t agree with. Breyer wrote that Boston regularly allows flags to fly from its poles, and therefore the public might not believe that all flags flown at city hall were conveying a message endorsed by the city.
Additionally, the court’s oldest justice, who retires at the end of the term, stated that Boston had no history of denying flag requests before Camp Constitution. He noted that the city also didn’t have any guidelines about what flags were permitted. Because the flag didn’t represent speech by the city, the court concluded that the city didn’t endorse Christianity and discriminated against Shurtlett and the Camp Constitution, and violated the free speech clause of the First Amendment.
Putting Religious Speech Equally With Secular Counterparts Doesn’t Violate the Constitution.
A vital principle at play for local governments is deciding when secular values override religious ones when it comes to government. Is a government endorsing or participating in religion by recognizing it exists?
Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted that a state or local government doesn’t violate the Constitution when it makes religious people and speech equal to secular counterparts. He stressed that a government could not treat religious persons, organizations, or speech as second-class.
Justice Alito took it one step further and wrote that the city engaged in the regulation of private speech. He reasoned that the city’s program couldn’t constitute government speech when it did nothing to suggest it was making a message through the flags. Additionally, Alito said the program clearly meant to allow anyone who met basic criteria to participate in flying a flag from the city’s flag pole.
Over the last several years, the court has prioritized protecting religious rights.
Stay tuned. The court will announce a decision in late June or early July about whether or not a football high school coach had the right to pray on school-owned football fields after a game.
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