Showing posts with label Christianity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christianity. Show all posts

Friday, October 1, 2021

Boston flag scrap heads to Washington

Three flagpoles at Boston City Hall (photo by Daderot CC0 1.0)
A Boston First Amendment flag-flying case is Supreme Court bound.

The case centers on three flagpoles at Boston City Hall.  The city flies the U.S. flag and POW/MIA flag on one pole, the Massachusetts flag on the second, and usually, the city flag on the third.  However, the city occasionally replaces its own flag with another.  The city refused a request by Camp Constitution, a religiously oriented civic organization, to fly the Christian ecumenical flag.

The First Circuit, affirming the district court, ruled for the city.  The court applied the government speech doctrine, holding that the third flagpole was reserved for the government's own speech, not opened as any kind of public forum for private speech.

The decision was supported by the testimony of city commissioner George Rooney, who said that he reviewed applications for flag raising for "consisten[cy] with the City's message, policies, and practices." The city moreover relied on its own First Amendment obligation not to establish religion.

Camp Constitution maintains that the application process expressly dedicates the flagpole as a public forum, so the First Amendment public forum doctrine should pertain.  In a public forum approach, the appellant reasons, exclusion of the ecumenical flag would be an impermissible discrimination against a religious viewpoint.

As the parties' positions demonstrate, the line between government speech doctrine and public forum doctrine is not always bright.  The government has the power to utter its own messages; think of Nancy Reagan saying, "Just Say No," or President Biden telling people to get vaccinated.

But when government opens a forum for public participation, its ability to censor within the forum is limited to setting the parameters of the forum.  Censorship of messages based on content must satisfy heightened First Amendment scrutiny, and censorship based on viewpoint is generally disallowed.  The paradigm is a bulletin board in a city park where the public is invited to post flyers.

Forums can be metaphysical, too.  Public forum doctrine was employed to limit President Trump's ability to excommunicate Twitter followers.  Tumultuous litigation over vanity license plates in the states have tugged back and forth across the government speech-public forum line, depending on how the government sets up the program.

The problem here is in large part of the city's own making, because, the First Circuit told us, "the City had no written policy for handling flag-raising applications. What is more, Rooney had never before denied a flag-raising application."  So Rooney was processing "applications," when "applications" were not really a thing.

Three months after Camp Constitution initiated litigation, the city adopted a written policy.  The first rule of the policy, on which the city now relies, "forbids the 'display [of] flags deemed to be inappropriate or offensive in nature or those supporting discrimination, prejudice, or religious movements.'"

The city's position is not helped by its history of flying a lot of flags.  The court recounted:

In a twelve-year period (from June 2005 through June 2017), the City approved 284 flag-raising events that implicated its third flagpole. These events were in connection with ethnic and other cultural celebrations, the arrival of dignitaries from other countries, the commemoration of historic events in other countries, and the celebration of certain causes (such as "gay pride"). The City also has raised on its third flagpole the flags of other countries, including Albania, Brazil, Ethiopia, Italy, Panama, Peru, Portugal, Mexico, as well as China, Cuba, and Turkey. So, too, it has raised the flags of Puerto Rico and private organizations, such as the Chinese Progressive Association, National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, Bunker Hill Association, and Boston Pride.

The city balked, it said, when faced with a first request to fly a religious flag.  The city believes that distinction bolsters its position in consistent policy and anti-establishment.  The same fact supports Camp Constitution's position, that the city is impermissibly hostile toward religion.

Flag controversies have been raging across the country.  My own hometown of Barrington, R.I., was rent in factions when, after a racially charged confrontation between residents, the town manager flew the Black Lives Matter flag at the town hall.  The United Veterans Council objected to what it perceived as diminution of the U.S. flag.  Like in Boston, the controversy was fueled by the town's lack of a policy.

The Supreme Court granted cert. in the Boston case yesterday.  Track Shurtleff v. Boston, No. 20-1800, at the Supreme Court and at SCOTUSblog.  HT @ The Volokh Conspiracy.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Lockdown tests religious freedom, responsibility

For two reasons, it pains me to see churches on the news violating stay-at-home rules.  First, like almost everyone, I'm horrified by the potential impact on people's health and lives, put at risk utterly unnecessarily.  Through the Bible, God calls on people to worship together, as a body, e.g. Hebrews 10:24-25. At the same time, as author Jon Meacham told Stephen Colbert in a terrific recent interview, during Passover and in anticipation of Easter, "Being willfully stupid is not part of the Christian tradition."


This might be an especially authentic Easter, Meacham suggested, in the sense that early Christians met in homes, e.g., Acts 12:12, and the disciples, if together, sought refuge behind locked doors after the Crucifixion, John 20:19.  Moreover, I've written previously about the biblical precedent for quarantine.

Second, these stories on the news are man-bites-dog coverage; what's being reported is aberrational, not normal.  And the truth about churches and other places of worship in this crisis could not be more poorly represented.  My church is the norm.  To protect congregants, the elders suspended our live worship service and other on-campus meetings before the law required.  We had Easter services on a live feed, and we're having classes, prayer, and meetings on Zoom.  Most importantly, we encourage and support one another, Romans 14, notwithstanding social distance.  In the absence of coordinated leadership and a functional social safety net from government, communities of faith are filling the gap, keeping people sound of mind and body.  That's the real religion story of the crisis (see also, e.g., NYT Wehner op-ed, Apr. 10).

Winston-Salem, N.C., March 20.  Photo by Breawycker CC BY-SA 4.0.
Seeing authorities in Kentucky and Louisiana effecting arrests and citing drivers at live religious ceremonies that defy government orders, I started to worry what damage these aberrational observances might do to our jurisprudence and tradition of free religious exercise.  Would this be yet another instance of #RuiningItForEveryone?  That is, if courts start making rulings that approve authoritarian government controls over even ludicrous assertions of religious freedom, the unintended consequence might be to water down religious freedom for all of us—however much I try to remain cognizant of the First Amendment's critical function in anti-majoritarianism.

A Methodist preacher on Deal Island, Md.,
probably the Rev. Joshua Thomas in the 1830s.
From Adam Wallace, The Parson of the Islands 93 (4th ed. 1872).
George Scoville, Nashville attorney and adjunct professor in political science at Belmont University, has written an excellent analysis of the present landscape in religious freedom law amid the lockdown, including explication of a recent federal court ruling in the Western District of Kentucky, and the potential application of the U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence on Native American peyote use.  He writes:
As an initial matter, nobody contests that, under the structure of our Constitution, states have always had plenary police power to regulate the health, safety, welfare, and morals of their citizens–the simple requirement being, at least after the 1860s, that people receive due process of law before a state-sanctioned deprivation of life, liberty, or property.  On the religious liberty question, my gut reaction is that, generally speaking, “safer-at-home” or “shelter-in-place” orders that prohibit gatherings of people larger than some discrete number, or which require that people maintain a proper social distance of some discrete number of feet, are not per se constitutionally problematic.  Rather, these orders, like the criminal prohibition on peyote use that applied to all Oregonians, apply to everyone.

However, As Scoville explains, there might be room for a challenge where the due process thread of the religious freedom argument intertwines with the equal protection thread.  Thus the court in Kentucky entertained the argument that disallowing drive-through worship while allowing drive-through liquor sales was constitutionally problematic.

Read Scoville's treatment at Church Closures During the COVID-19 Pandemic (Probably) Do Not Violate the First Amendment, April 13, 2020.

[UPDATE, April 26, 2020:  Attorney Scoville has authored an op-ed for The Tennessean in which he additionally considers the potential impact of mini-RFRA litigation amid the pandemic.]

[UPDATE, May 15, 2020: The Sixth Circuit has issued an injunction allowing live church services despite the Kentucky Governor's orders.]