The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which advocates for the separation of church and state, is asking the Defense Department's inspector general to review the Air Force's decision to allow retiring airmen to have religiously-themed speech during the flag folding portion of their retirement ceremonies.
The MRFF called for "appropriate sanctions" to be imposed for the Air Force's violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which guarantees a separation of church and state, as well as the Anti-Deficiency Act, which prohibits the use of federal funds for purposes that were not approved by Congress. And the group demanded that the Air Force Instruction governing flag-folding ceremonies be revised to remove language allowing religiously-themed speech.
The Air Force last month announced it would change its rules governing retirement ceremonies and allow some to have religious elements if the retiring airman desires them. The change was sparked by a controversy involving the removal of retired Senior Master Sgt. Oscar Rodriguez, who was physically thrown out of a retirement ceremony in April after he attempted to deliver an unauthorized flag-folding speech.
The speech Rodriguez intended to deliver at the request of the retiring airman included some references to God, and the group First Liberty Institute, which represented Rodriguez, said his expulsion violated his First Amendment rights to freely speak and exercise his religion.
An Air Force inspector general report concluded Rodriguez was kicked out because his speech was unauthorized and not because it mentioned God. However, the Air Force reviewed its rules governing the flag-folding portion of retirement ceremonies and decided the language governing scripts was too restrictive. Under the new rules, an airman having a retirement ceremony, as long as attendance is voluntary, can have a script of their choosing read during the flag-folding portion.
In a letter to DoD IG Glenn Fine, MRFF president Mikey Weinstein said that change is uancceptable and should be reversed. The new language will allow Air Force leaders "to unlawfully and unconstitutionally endorse their personal religious beliefs during such ceremonies," Weinstein wrote in the letter. He also disputed a portion of the new language that described retirement ceremonies as "not official."
Such religious flag-folding speeches "most often and predictably invoke sectarian Christian values with each fold without the slightest respect or consideration of other service members' differing religious beliefs or the absence of religious beliefs," violating the Constitution's Establishment Clause, Weinstein said. And as retirement ceremonies usually use military facilities and on-duty military personnel, having a religious element included would be illegal, he said.
"By removing any requirement that USAF flag-folding retirement ceremonies obey the mandates of the Constitution's Establishment Clause, the Air Force has provided religious zealots with a universal 'loophole,' which permits sectarian religious proselytization at these USAF events -- events that subordinate airmen are expected to attend and are customarily performed on military bases by Air Force leaders during official duty hours and in military full uniform," Weinstein said. "Such endorsement of religion under these circumstances clearly violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution."
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.