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Columns

God in the Public Square: Shurtleff v. City of Boston

The Free Exercise Thereof

The Boston City Hall is located in the heart of Boston's Government Center complex.
The Boston City Hall is located in the heart of Boston's Government Center complex. By Mariah Ellen D. Dimalaluan
By Aidan R. Scully, Contributing Opinion Writer
Aidan R. Scully ’25 is a Classics and Religion concentrator in Adams House. His column “The Free Exercise Thereof” appears on alternate Tuesdays.

On August 3, 2022, the Christian flag flew over the city of Boston.

The raising of the flag — a white banner with red Latin cross on a blue field in the upper hoist-side corner — was the culmination of a legal battle that started in 2017. Camp Constitution, a Christian organization, asked to fly their religious flag to commemorate America’s “Judeo-Christian heritage” on Constitution Day, using a flagpole the city normally uses to fly civilian flags upon request. Boston denied that request under the Establishment Clause, and, five years later, the Supreme Court ruled in Camp Constitution’s favor in Shurtleff v. City of Boston.

The flag only flew for two hours, but in that time it sent a clear message to the nonreligious and non-Christian communities in the city — that those who viewed their community as fundamentally Christian would always win out.

Liberty Counsel, the firm representing Camp Constitution, claimed viewpoint discrimination since the city denied the request not because of the content of the flag itself, but specifically because he described the flag as the “Christian flag.” The city’s refusal to fly his Christian flag while it had flown secular flags before (mostly other national flags to celebrate Boston’s diversity, but also flags commemorating celebrations like Pride Month and Juneteenth) was therefore just one more example of the government discriminating against religious people in the name of what Neil Gorsuch labeled the “so-called separation of church and state.

To the petitioners’ credit, the commissioner in charge had never rejected a flag raising petition, and Boston had approved 284 in the last twelve years. But, the city had also never before flown a religious flag, and, believing that flying the cross outside city hall would constitute too much of an endorsement of one particular religion, the city denied the request.

The idea that Christianity is being discriminated against has become a prominent talking point of the religious right, who have used the “removal of God from the public square” as an explanation for school shootings to argue that a return to a Christian society would correct our societal trajectory. But for all their assertions that Christianity has become taboo, it is not a coincidence that the lone religious flag to fly over Boston was Christian, and I would argue that the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision for this Christian plaintiff says more about religion in the United States today than Boston’s rejection of the original petition. While regulations such as those enforced by the city are designed to protect all religious communities equally, Christianity is regularly prioritized across the country in ways that no other religion is prioritized.

Both Arkansas and Texas have monuments to the Ten Commandments at their state capitol buildings, and Oklahoma had one until 2015. Seven states mandate that public schools teach classes on the Bible. Governing bodies from town councils to state legislatures regularly open their sessions with disproportionately Christian prayers, and the professional chaplains of both chambers of Congress are Christian. Only Christians have ever held either role. And none of this mentions the fact that the Christian holiday of Christmas is the only religious holiday to have federal recognition. These, to me, are the visible, political manifestations of Christian Nationalism, an ahistorical movement which argues that the American identity is a fundamentally Christian identity.

Yet as many on the religious right no longer shy away from the term “Christian Nationalist,” even these displays of Christian dominance are not enough. They must be allowed to make the Bible their official state book, they must be allowed to lead students in prayer, they must be allowed to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people while still receiving federal funds, and they must be allowed to drive the message home by flying the Christian flag from Boston City Hall.

To non-religious and minority religious communities, the argument that our society is declining because God is being “removed from the public square” is grounded in a visibly false premise. Christianity continues to be the default position in the United States, with Christians vastly overrepresented in Congress and the Supreme Court. The true shift in the United States surrounds conflating Christian morality with the law and Christianity with the government itself.

God has not been removed from the public square, but Christians can’t use the government to enforce the display of God. Christians can still pray in public, they just can’t coerce their students into doing it with them. Christians can still send their children to schools that discriminate against LGBTQ+ and nonreligious students and teachers, they just can’t demand that those schools receive federal funding in violation of nondiscrimination laws.

Or at the very least, they couldn’t. But one by one, these legal barriers between church and state are being undone, slowly but deliberately, thanks to a concerted effort on behalf of a small but critical minority of the Christian population. And one by one, these policy shifts are constructing a religious hierarchy completely detached from the diverse religious perspectives held by Americans and out of touch even with the religion practiced by most Christians.

This column, “The Free Exercise Thereof,” will examine this rising wave of Christian Nationalism and what it means for non-Christians like myself. Decisions like Shurtleff and the other cases that this column will investigate are part of a concerted effort to undermine the separation of church and state, and it is for that reason that acknowledging and addressing this existential threat should be our utmost constitutional priority.

Christianity has long held legal privilege in American society, but this new wave of Christian Nationalism is explicitly and dangerously reactionary. Camp Constitution did not feel the need to assert the country’s “Judeo-Christian heritage” in a vacuum. A small, reactionary subset of hardline Christians see the loss of absolute supremacy for Christianity in America’s religious landscape and view it as discrimination.

To them, the United States has always been a Christian nation. And for those two hours on August 3, their message came through loud and clear.

Aidan R. Scully ’25 is a Classics and Religion concentrator in Adams House. His column “The Free Exercise Thereof” appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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