After blowup, Air Force clarifies rules for God reference in flag-folding ceremony

by Gregory Tomlin, |
A still taken from the video showing retired Master Sgt. Oscar Rodriguez being removed from a friend's retirement ceremony. | YouTube

WASHINGTON (Christian Examiner) – The U.S. Air Force has announced it will allow retirees to use religious language during their retirement flag-folding ceremonies, the Air Force Times has reported.

The move follows an incident at Travis Air Force Base in California which has garnered national attention and alarmed free speech advocates.

During the incident in April, several Air Force personnel forcibly removed retired Senior Master Sgt. Oscar Rodriguez Jr. during a flag folding ceremony when he began to recite – at the request of the retiree Master Sgt. Charles Roberson – a flag-folding speech that mentioned God. The struggle was caught on video.

According to Air Force regulations, nothing has to be recited when a flag is folded, but if a script is used it is supposed to only be the script provided by the Air Force. That script contains a history of the flag, but makes no mention of God.

Retired Master Sgt. Oscar Rodriguez Jr., ousted from a flag-folding ceremony, over his mention of God in a speech delivered at the request of his friend who was retiring. | First Liberty Institute

In this case, however, the man reciting a speech over the folding of the flag is a civilian. That complicates things, free speech advocates say, because the civilian is not required to abide by Air Force regulations with respect to speech. Rodriguez has obtained legal counsel and is in the process of making a claim of infringement of his First Amendment rights.

After the dustup, the Air Force clarified its policy. It said no regulations were violated.

"Since retirement ceremonies are personal in nature, the script preference for a flag folding ceremony is at the discretion of the individual being honored and represents the member's views, not those of the Air Force. The Air Force places the highest value on the rights of its personnel in matters of religions and facilitates the free exercise of religion by its members," the clarification said.

It also said that attendance at a retirement ceremony is voluntary.

That clarification has angered the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), which said it is now considering suing the service. It claims that Air Force regulations are to be imposed whether the ceremony is public or private, presumably because it occurred on the base.

The lawsuit, it said, "regards the matter of the justified ousting of a Mr. Oscar Rodriguez from zealously shouting an unlawful religious-laced speech at the flag-folding ceremony of an official USAF retirement proceeding."

The group, led by Mikey Weinstein, said the Air Force – after its clarification of policy – didn't know its own regulations.

"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 said.

Air Force Capt. Brooke Brzozowske who delivered the Air Force's statement, said further clarification on its flag-folding speech policy will come once an investigation by the inspector general is completed. Deborah Lee James, Secretary of the Air Force, ordered the review.

Rodriguez is being represented by the First Liberty Institute.