Thursday, October 13, 2016

A group advocating the separation of church and state is demanding a federal investigation after the Air Force decided to implement a policy change allowing religious expression in flag-folding ceremonies.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation said in a demand letter to the Department of Defense on Thursday that the Air Force’s decision to designate retirement ceremonies as unofficial is “extraordinarily problematic.”

The decision “erroneously makes retirement ceremonies ‘unofficial’ in order to justify what would clearly be a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause when the overwhelming, undisputed evidence demonstrates that these ceremonies are unquestionably official,” the letter says.

The policy change came after an embarrassing incident in which Air Force veteran Oscar Rodriguez was forcibly removed from a retirement ceremony in April for beginning to deliver a flag-folding script that referenced God.

Although the Air Force adopted a secular flag-folding script in 2005, the military branch said in June it would revise the policy to ensure airmen are allowed to express their religious beliefs unimpeded at retirement ceremonies in the future.

“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 said in a statement at the time. “The Air Force places the highest value on the rights of its personnel in matters of religion and facilitates the free exercise of religion by its members.”

Mikey Weinstein, who heads the MRFF, said he was “shocked” by the regulation change. He said flag-folding ceremonies carry the weight of official events and should be secular in nature.

“The changing of the regulations, that retirement ceremonies are no longer official — of course, they’re being paid for by official funds, they’re on base, they’re during duty hours, they’re in uniform and if subordinate ranking airmen do not go, they face incredibly direct and indirect reprisal and retribution,” Mr. Weinstein said.

Mr. Rodriguez is a popular speaker who has become well-known for his rendition of the traditional flag-folding address. He was invited to speak at the April ceremony on Travis Air Force Base, California, by retiring Master Sgt. Charles Roberson.

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