Shurtleff v. City of Boston - Wikipedia

Shurtleff v. City of Boston
Argued January 18, 2022
Decided May 2, 2022
Full case nameHarold Shurtleff, et al. v. City of Boston, Massachusetts, et al.
Docket no.20-1800
Citations596 U.S. ___ (more)
ArgumentOral argument
1. When the government opens up its property to the public for purely private speech, it does not necessarily constitute government speech.

2. Permitting private religious expression on government property when that property is made a public forum for comparable private expression does not violate the establishment clause.

3. Prohibiting the use of government property for private expression based solely on its religious content while allowing comparable private speech constitutes impermissible viewpoint discrimination and violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
Court membership
Chief Justice
John Roberts
Associate Justices
Clarence Thomas · Stephen Breyer
Samuel Alito · Sonia Sotomayor
Elena Kagan · Neil Gorsuch
Brett Kavanaugh · Amy Coney Barrett
Case opinions
MajorityBreyer, joined by Roberts, Sotomayor, Kagan, Kavanaugh, Barrett
ConcurrenceAlito (in judgment), joined by Thomas, Gorsuch
ConcurrenceGorsuch (in judgment), joined by Thomas
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. I

Shurtleff v. City of Boston, 596 U.S. ___ (2022), was a United States Supreme Court case related to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The case concerned the City of Boston's program that allowed groups to have their flags flown outside Boston City Hall. In a unanimous 9–0 decision, the Court ruled that the city violated a Christian group's free speech rights when it denied their request to raise a Christian flag over City Hall.[1][2]


Under an application process, Boston, Massachusetts allowed groups to have their flags raised over one of the three flagpoles outside Boston City Hall. Flags that the city had approved ranged from those of other nations, to those celebrating the observance of Juneteenth.[1][3]

A Christian group, Camp Constitution, and its director Hal Shurtleff applied to have the city fly a Christian flag over City Hall on Constitution Day in 2017.[1][4] The group's mission is "to enhance the understanding of the country’s Judeo-Christian moral heritage".[2] The city denied their application, the first denial of about 284 applications,[1] on concerns that it would violate the Establishment Clause as government speech by signaling that the city was endorsing a particular religion.[4] This was the first request that the city ever received to raise a religious flag during its program.[2] Shurtleff then sued the city for violating his free speech rights.[3]

After the city prevailed in both the district court and the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, Shurtleff appealed to the Supreme Court.[3] In the meantime, the city discontinued accepting flag raising applications.[5]

Supreme Court[edit]

Certiorari was granted in the case on September 30, 2021.[3] On May 2, 2022, the Court unanimously ruled that the City of Boston violated the First Amendment by denying Shurtleff's application to fly the flag.[6][7]

The majority decision was written by Justice Stephen Breyer. He concluded that "the city's lack of meaningful involvement in the selection of flags or the crafting of their messages leads us to classify the flag raisings as private, not government, speech".[1]

Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote a one-paragraph concurring opinion to emphasize that a government does not violate the Establishment Clause when it treats religious persons or organizations equally with secular ones, but a government does violate the Free Speech Clause when it excludes religious persons or organizations.[2]

Justice Samuel Alito wrote another concurring opinion, disagreeing with Breyer's analysis and that the simplest test in these type of cases is "whether the government is actually expressing its own views or the real speaker is a private party."[2]

Justice Neil Gorsuch also filed a concurring opinion, writing that the city relied erroneously on the 1971 ruling in Lemon v. Kurtzman and the subsequent "Lemon test", which had been used to evaluate such government actions within the scope of the Establishment Clause but had been falling out of favor by the Court in the years prior.[2] The Court would later officially overturn Lemon about eight weeks later on June 27, 2022, in its ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, with Gorsuch writing the majority opinion.[8]


After the ruling, a spokesperson for Boston mayor Michelle Wu stated that they will review the court's decision. The Satanic Temple nevertheless submitted a request to fly their flag for "Satanic Appreciation Week" from July 23–29.[5]

The Biden administration and the American Civil Liberties Union sided with the Christian group. The administration said that "The city cannot generally open its flagpole to flags from private civic and social groups while excluding otherwise similar groups with religious views".[9]


  1. ^ a b c d e "Supreme Court rules against Boston in Christian flag case". Politico. Associated Press. May 2, 2022. Archived from the original on May 2, 2022.
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Shurtleff v. Boston". Oyez Project. May 2, 2022. Archived from the original on May 3, 2022.
  3. ^ a b c d Howe, Amy (September 30, 2021). "Justices add five new cases to their docket from "long conference," including Cruz campaign case". SCOTUSblog. Archived from the original on September 30, 2021.
  4. ^ a b Kaylor, Brian; Underwood, Beau (January 16, 2022). "The man behind Shurtleff v. City of Boston". A Public Witness. Archived from the original on January 16, 2022.
  5. ^ a b Jenn Selva and Shawna Mizelle (May 4, 2022). "The Satanic Temple requests that Boston fly its flag after Supreme Court ruling". CNN. Archived from the original on May 7, 2022.
  6. ^ Hausle, Dan (May 2, 2022). "Supreme Court rules against Boston in Christian flag case". WHDH-TV. Associated Press. Archived from the original on May 2, 2022.
  7. ^ Ellement, John R.; Lotan, Gal Tziperman (May 2, 2022). "Supreme Court rules Boston violated First Amendment rights by refusing to fly Christian flag at City Hall Plaza". The Boston Globe. Archived from the original on May 2, 2022.
  8. ^ Millhiser, Ian (June 27, 2022). "The Supreme Court hands the religious right a big victory by lying about the facts of a case". Archived from the original on July 2, 2022.
  9. ^ Liptak, Adam (May 2, 2022). "Supreme Court Rules Against Boston in Case on Christian Flag". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on May 3, 2022.

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