Interpretation of religious neutrality associated with speeches delivered at U.S. flag-folding ceremonies is under debate, leading toward a potential federal lawsuit. A flag-folding speech attempted at Travis Air Force Base near the Bay Area in northern California sparked controversy, and raised questions about referencing God and prayer in military ceremonies. Now, the major question is where military control ends and individual rights begin.
Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) representatives on Thursday announced they were considering filing a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Air Force (USAF) on behalf of 14 USAF officers, non-commissioned officers and civilians they represent at Travis AFB.
Foundation representatives stated all 14 Air Force clients are either practicing Protestants or Roman Catholics.
This incident started when a lieutenant colonel with the 349th Air Mobility Wing (Reserve) objected to a planned speech during the flag-folding portion of a retirement ceremony for Master Sgt. Charles Roberson. Oscar Rodriguez' speech, which he reportedly has given for several years at public and private events, references God and prayer, reports Stars and Stripes. When Rodriguez began his speech April 3, an officer ordered Rodriguez to be removed from the base auditorium.
Air Force officials this week launched an investigation into the events, after the religious freedom organization First Liberty Institute took Rodriguez on as a client and demanded an apology.
In a statement about Air Force policy, representatives said Wednesday that "personnel may use a flag-folding ceremony script that has religious references at their retirement ceremonies. Since retirement ceremonies are personal in nature, the script preference for a flag-folding ceremony is at the discretion of the individual being honored."
However, that statement and policy differs from a decade-old Air Force regulation, Air Force Instruction (AFI) 34-1201, Section 2.15 which specifically states: "According to Title 4 United States Code, there is no specific meaning assigned to the folds of the flag. Although there are flag folding ceremony options offered by various national interest groups, these are not official Air Force ceremonies. The Air Force developed a script that provides a historical perspective on the flag. There are no ceremonies in the Air Force requiring a script to be read when the flag is folded. However, when a flag folding ceremony is desired and conducted by Air Force personnel at any location, on or off an installation, this script is the only one that may be used. (Emphasis added)".
The Air Force regulation was revised in 2005 to mandate that only the official, religiously neutral script be used at any Air Force flag-folding ceremony where one is given. Air Force officials on Friday said the regulation is misleading, because it does not distinguish between official ceremonies and informal retirement ceremonies. After military legal advisers interpreted that distinction, the Air Force adopted it.
"The astonishing and embarrassing disparity between the Air Force's official statement from late yesterday and the actual controlling Air Force regulation could not be more blatantly apparent!" MRFF representatives insisted.
MRFF then demanded that Air Force officials immediately retract the "prior fatally erroneous statement and replace it with a statement that confirms the total applicability" of AFI 34-1201, Section 2.15 to all USAF flag folding ceremonies.
Failure by the Air Force to comply to MRFF's demands in a timely fashion opens the door to federal litigation through a Writ of Mandamus lawsuit being considered by MRFF litigators with MRFF's 14 USAF clients at Travis AFB as potential plaintiffs.
MRFF litigators stated the ousting of Rodriguez was justified because he "zealously shouted an unlawful religious-laced speech at the flag folding ceremony of an official USAF retirement proceeding held at Travis AFB in April of 2016."
The planned litigation would ask a federal judge to compel the Air Force to follow its own regulations.