Boston agrees to $2.1M settlement for refusing to fly Christian flag

US Supreme Court ruled unanimously in May that Boston had violated Shurtleff's free speech rights

The city of Boston agreed to pay $2.1 million to a Christian legal group Tuesday after refusing to fly a Christian flag outside city hall in 2017. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in May. 

The $2.1 million settlement will cover attorney fees and costs, Liberty Counsel, a Christian legal organization, said in a released statement. Liberty Counsel represented Boston resident Hal Shurtleff and his Christian civic organization, Camp Constitution, in their case against the city starting in 2017.

"We are pleased that, after five years of litigation and a unanimous victory at the U.S. Supreme Court, we joined with Hal Shurtleff to finally let freedom fly in Boston, the Cradle of Liberty," Matt Staver, Liberty Counsel founder and chairman, said in a statement released by Liberty Counsel. 

Shurtleff and Camp Constitution had asked the city for a permit to hoist a Christian flag on the city hall flagpole in commemoration of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. Their request for a permit was ultimately denied by the city.

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The Christian flag is raised at City Hall Plaza Aug. 3, 2022, in Boston.

The Christian flag is raised at City Hall Plaza Aug. 3, 2022, in Boston. (Stuart Cahill/The Boston Herald via AP)

The city had approved 284 flags between 2005 and 2017 prior to denying Shurtleff's request, according to Liberty Counsel. The legal group argued Shurtleff's request was rejected due to the flag being referred to as "Christian" on the form.

Shurtleff v. City of Boston reached the U.S. Supreme Court in May after four lower court rulings siding with the city. The nine Supreme Court Justices ruled unanimously that the city was violating Shurtleff's free speech rights in its denial to fly the Christian flag.

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"Indeed, the city’s practice was to approve flag raisings without exception — that is, until petitioners’ request," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the court's opinion. "Because the flag-raising program did not express government speech, Boston’s refusal to let petitioners fly their flag violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment."

The Supreme Court June 29, 2022, in Washington.

The Supreme Court June 29, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The Court wrote Boston "had no written policies or clear internal guidance about what flags groups could fly and what those flags would communicate" at the time of the request. The city later passed an ordinance following the ruling that clarified rules for flag raisings. 

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The Christian flag was raised and flown for several hours outside Boston City Hall Aug. 3, with activists and supporters cheering the court ruling. 

Boston City Hall noted Liberty Counsel was "entitled to attorney fees by statute as the prevailing party in a civil rights case" in an email statement to Fox News Digital.

Flags fly above Boston City Hall Nov. 11, 2021. 

Flags fly above Boston City Hall Nov. 11, 2021.  (Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

"The city's law department determined this number to be reasonable based on the detailed billing statements provided by Liberty Counsel and through their own analysis of rates charged by attorneys with similar experience in Boston as well as nationally among attorneys practicing in the Supreme Court," a city spokesperson said. "Settlement at this time also allows the city to avoid the costs and uncertainty associated with further litigation in this case."

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Staver said the Christian flag case ultimately set precedent with the overturning of the 1971 Lemon Test, with Justice Neil Gorsuch writing in a concurring opinion, "The hard truth is, Lemon’s abstract and ahistoric test put ‘policymakers … in a vise between the Establishment Clause on one side and the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses on the other.’"