As recently as a couple of years ago, the U.S. Air Force made clear that “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.” They were referring to a secular script drenched in patriotism.
The alternative, which the Air Force said could be used at “personal ceremonies as long as the participants are volunteers,” was explicitly Christian.
Here’s the dilemma: Which version did you have to use at a personal retirement ceremony at an Air Force base when military officials were involved? (Was that a public or private event?)
That was the question at the heart of a 2016 controversy.
When retired Senior Master Sgt. Oscar Rodriguez gave the flag-folding speech at his friend’s retirement ceremony at Travis Air Force Base in April of that year, he used the Christian version of the speech. But because he was supposed to use the secular version, he was disobeying protocol and essentially removed from the ceremony by force.
It certainly didn’t make for good optics, but the question remained: If Air Force personnel were involved in a flag-folding ceremony on an Air Force base, was that an official event with secular rules or a private event where Christianity could be promoted?
As of June of 2016, the secular flag-folding script is no longer mandated by the military. You can say whatever you’d like during that ritual.
But that doesn’t make up for the way the military reacted during that retirement ceremony. First Liberty Institute, a conservative legal group, announced last night that it was suing the Air Force over its actions during that 2016 celebration:
… First Liberty was forced to file a lawsuit when officials refused to apologize to Rodriguez for the assault, to Roberson for ruining the only retirement ceremony he would ever have, and to make sure other members of the armed forces know their religious liberty is protected as well.
The group says the interruption had a dramatic effect on both men:
… Roberson felt humiliated, sad, angry, and disturbed. Roberson felt that the flag itself was disgraced by the individual Defendants’ separate and collective actions, and was embarrassed of what his many family members, friends, and coworkers observed. Further, Roberson was shocked that the individual Defendants acted so violently toward a well-meaning, non-disruptive civilian (and retiree) at a private retirement ceremony; one whom he had personally invited. In the aftermath of the ceremony, Roberson was so upset that he could not sleep well and had no appetite.
Rodriguez likewise felt humiliated, sad, angry, and disturbed. He was upset by the events and felt that Roberson’s retirement had been ruined. Rodriguez was so distraught that he called Military OneSource’s 24/7 counseling hotline to seek psychological assistance.
That’s… quite the reaction to something he could’ve avoided by taking the safe route and reading the secular version of the script. First Liberty says the Air Force violated both mens’ free speech and free exercise rights, in addition to Rodriguez’s Fourth Amendment and Due Process rights.
It’s possible the lawsuit could be tossed out because the rules have already been changed allowing religious scripts in those instances, making the matter moot. It’s also possible there’s no case here since Rodriguez was warned by his superiors that he couldn’t read his religious script at the Air Force base but chose to do so anyway. He was the one being disobedient, and the military had every right to remove him for breaking the rules. While some headlines will make this a story about the innocuous religious content of a speech, it’s really about someone who broke military rules so he could promote his religion.
He knew the consequences. He gave his godly speech anyway. He shouldn’t have been surprised by what happened.
So why is First Liberty taking this case? If there’s one thing we know about conservative legal groups, it’s that they frequently file lawsuits even when they have no case because the publicity itself brings in donations.
If they win, they’ll get attorney’s fees plus whatever damages the court sees fit to remedy.
(via Religion Clause. Portions of this article were published earlier)