New Air Force flag-folding rules strangle Constitution

A strange thing happened in 2004.  In that year American flag-folding scripts, unofficially written on home computers to be used at Air Force retirement ceremonies, began to appear throughout the Air Force.  The scripts emanated for the most part from the Colorado Springs area, the site of my alma mater (and the alma mater of my 2 sons, daughter-in law and son-in-law), the United States Air Force Academy.  Bereft of historical reference or evidence, the scripts boldly proclaimed that particular, numbered folds in the flag-folding ceremony represented only Judeo-Christian "values."  

For example, the most popular of these unauthorized scripts -- said to have been written by a chaplain in the 1980s and still readily available on the Internet -- without the slightest degree of historical support, stated, "The fourth fold of the flag represents our weaker nature, for as American citizens trusting in God, it is to Him we turn in times of peace as well as in times of war for His divine guidance."  The inference is inescapably clear; the nation's flag is not for atheists, agnostics, secularists or humanists, even if they honorably serve in a uniform of United States Armed Forces.

Then the popular script goes on to boast, "The eleventh fold, in the eyes of a Hebrew citizen, represents the lower portion of the seal of King David and King Solomon, and glorifies, in their eyes, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."   The inescapable question that the non-Jewish listener must ask is, "Does the U.S. flag have any religious significance for me?   Does it honor my religious or nonreligious beliefs?

The question is rapidly answered when the script concludes by reciting, "The twelfth fold, in the eyes of a Christian citizen, represents an emblem of eternity and glorifies, in their eyes, God the Father, the Son and Holy Ghost." The United States flag represents the religious beliefs of Christian service members attending the ceremony.  Now all airmen know that the flag (and thus our national values), support solely Judeo-Christian airmen.  The inference is again clear; the nation's flag, and its values, support Christian and Jewish airmen and, by the absence of any mention of other religions or non-faith belief systems, our flag supports nobody else, either in or out of uniform.  The unstated message is inescapable;  to hell with atheists, non-theists, Muslims, Shinto, Wiccans, Native American religions, Hindus, and anyone else; our nation is a restricted club; it is not open to other religions or to those who doubt or reject the existence of one or more deities.

In 2005, the Air Force's response to complaints over the widespread resurgence of this mean-spirited, bigoted, anti-inclusive flag-folding script was to recognize that all airmen of every religion, or no religion, can serve with equal honor and distinction, and that our nation offers a home to all, irrespective of any religious or nonreligious affiliation.  So, the Air Force promulgated Air Force Instruction 34-1201, addressing flag-folding scripts to be recited at retirement ceremonies.  Paragraph 2.15 of the instruction required that a secular script, with solely historical and, specifically, no religious references, be used in flag-folding ceremonies.  The approved script was attached to the instruction, so there would be no doubt as to what script to use in future ceremonies. That was the Air Force's position for the past 11 years.  During that time, flag-folding ceremonies were conducted in the Air Force with great dignity and patriotic passion befitting retirement ceremonies. Inclusivity was the order of the day and the incontrovertible essentials of military command structure -- good order, morale, discipline and unit cohesion -- were nourished and flourished.

Caving to extremist pressure

On April 3 at Travis Air Force Base in northern California, despite being specifically disinvited as a ceremony participant (but not as an attendee), an Air Force retiree attempted to force his way into a flag-folding ceremony during an on-base retirement ceremony.  He attempted to read (actually, per his past history, wildly shout and yell) his favorite overtly religious flag-folding script, during the planned flag-folding ceremony. He was removed before he could do so.

It is with the deepest regret that I must report that, after bending to right-wing, fundamentalist Christian political pressure following the ejection of this disinvited retiree, the Air Force has abruptly rescinded paragraph 2.15 as of Sept. 9, including the paragraph's requirement that, if a script is to be used, only the nonsectarian script cited in paragraph 2.15 must be used. In its place, the Air Force substituted new language in paragraph 2.15, which opens the door wide to any script that anyone cares to design in their wildest imagination, because, get this, the flag-folding ceremony is now deemed "unofficial."  Got Pandora's Box, Air Force?

The newly substituted paragraph 2.15 simply states, "Although there are flag-folding ceremony options offered by various national interest groups, these are not official ceremonies." By no longer mandating the exact wording of the flag-folding script -- and without saying more -- the Air Force has willfully obliterated the restriction on flag-folding exercises.  Today, absolutely any and all religious references in a flag-folding script are "good to go" by the Air Force. Why? The specious and cowardly answer is because, by bureaucratic fiat in paragraph 2.15 of the instruction, the Air Force has concluded that flag-folding ceremonies, regardless of where they are conducted and by whom they are conducted, are now "not official."

To say these flag-folding ceremonies are "unofficial" is a ridiculous fiction, contradicted by every salient fact germane to and surrounding these ceremonies. Just for the moment, let's leave aside the fact that attendance at Air Force retirement ceremonies by subordinate ranking airmen are only "voluntary" in the most ridiculous sense of the word and that severe direct and indirect career sanctions can and will apply to those who do not enthusiastically attend these proceedings. Let's take a quick look at how these ceremonies go down. Flag-folding ceremonies customarily occur on military bases, in Air Force facilities funded by U.S. taxpayer dollars, as part of retirement ceremonies presided over by senior Air Force leaders who appear in full Air Force uniform. The participants folding the flag are likewise in full uniform and are often members of the installation's elite Honor Guard. Customarily, all participants are "on duty," paid by the American taxpayer, and not on leave status.

The First Amendment of our secular Constitution states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. …"  The courts for generations have consistently held that this bedrock prohibition applies not just to Congress, but to all elements of the government, to include the United States Air Force.  By authorizing flag-folding scripts that recite that folds in the flag represent particular exclusive Judeo-Christian values, the Air Force is authorizing base and vile bigotry. The Air Force is telling its airmen that other religious or nonreligious beliefs are not represented by our national flag.  The message is understood by all: those religions or non-beliefs are second rate, not American enough and not Air Force sanctioned.  Now, by official Air Force decree, the established, state sanctioned religion is Judeo-Christian (ahem, read, "Christian").  By sanctioning religious flag-folding ceremonies in Air Force facilities, conducted by Judeo-Christian airmen, the Air Force has taken prohibited state action to condone interference with the free exercise by airmen of other religions (or those who have no religion) which are not mentioned in the script.  These unfortunate "others" are not welcomed.  This travesty is a clarion message that non-Christian and non-Jewish airmen better get on board and convert to Judeo-Christian religions or be considered second-class citizens and second-class airmen.  Without a doubt, our Air Force's action interferes mightily with the religious free exercise rights of non-Judeo-Christian airmen.

Curiously, less than three months before its revision of paragraph 2.15, on June 22, the Air Force Public Affairs Office released guidance to Air Force installations stating that "retirement ceremonies are personal in nature" and that flag-folding ceremonies, when part of a retirement ceremony are therefore "unofficial". The attendant hypocrisy is lethal.

Air Force legal staff rulings do not support new rules

However, the Air Force General Counsel's Office effusively disagrees.  In its September 2012 guidance, the General Counsel states that military members should be offered a retirement ceremony because they have earned the honor, that a general officer should preside if possible, and that the presiding officer is entitled to use official travel funds to pay for travel expenses (e.g., transportation and lodging).  Government travel funds are authorized by Congress for official duty travel, not for personal use such as attending or presiding at unofficial events.  Therefore, it only stands to reason that the retirement ceremony is an "official" event, which may be personal to the honoree, but which is still an official event for which government funding is authorized (e.g., the presiding Air Force official's travel and the participants' salary expenses).  Were it not so, presiding officials would have to pay for their own travel and participants (to include the honoree) would have to be in a leave status.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, of which I am the founder and president, asserts that the claim that a flag-folding ceremony conducted in the middle of an otherwise official retirement ceremony is somehow a momentary "unofficial" lapse, and therefore anything goes, is more than just disingenuous.  It's dishonest and disgusting. It's repugnant to the Constitution all airmen swear their oaths to. It's a damn lie. Every airman knows it's a breach of their first Air Force core value, "Integrity First."

Creating a brave, new world of religious supremacy

But if there are to be no restrictions on religious speech in flag-folding scripts because (wink-wink, nod-nod) they are "unofficial," then we can soon expect to hear the following:

"The first fold of the flag represents the fact that America was founded as a Christian nation and others must convert or get out."

"The second fold in the flag represents that marriage can only be between a man and a woman and gay, bisexual, lesbian and transgender airmen who violate this principal will suffer the fires of hell."

"The third fold represents that a woman should not serve in a combat role, as God intended their role to be subservient to man and not to substitute for the role of man."

Seriously? Is our nation's Air Force honestly ready to tolerate and actually promote this kind of heinous, hate-filled speech on the putrid pretext that the flag-folding ceremony in an otherwise official retirement ceremony is a "momentary lapse" into an unofficial, unconstrained event? As the nation's flag is folded by uniformed members and a uniformed general officer presides over the ceremony, is the Air Force prepared for the appearance of unconstitutional impropriety and fundamentalist religious supremacy and primacy that such a wretched scene entails when hate-filled speech, disguised as permissible religious "free expression," begins to malodorously fill the air?

If so, it's a sad day for our First Amendment, for our core values, for our Air Force and for our nation.

For god's (or no god's) sake, we are better than this.

We have to be.

Michael L. "Mikey" Weinstein is founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation , an honor graduate of the Air Force Academy, and a former JAG in the U.S. Air Force. He served as a White House counsel in the Reagan administration. He is also the former general counsel to H. Ross Perot and Perot Systems Corporation. In December 2012, Defense News named Mikey one of the 100 Most Influential People in U.S. Defense. He is the author of "With God On Our Side" (2006, St. Martin's Press) and "No Snowflake in an Avalanche" (2012, Vireo). The opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military Times or its editorial staff.

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