The Air Force says that when it adopted an official instruction barring religious references and non-factual information about the American flag during folding ceremonies it was not intended to be a blanket ban.
The revelation that there was some never-published guidance allowing for "unofficial" flag-folding narratives comes as the Air Force responds to a threatened lawsuit by a retiree forcibly evicted from another airman's retirement ceremony because he began making a speech that would reference God.
"We acknowledge that the Air Force Instruction should have incorporated the supplemental guidance. This instruction will soon be revised to clarify the policy," Capt. Brooke L. Brzozowske said in a statement.
Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, called the Air Force's latest response to the incident at Travis Air Force Base in California "an attempt at revisionist history."
"We face this stuff on a weekly basis, we interact with Air Force JAGs [judge advocate generals] on an almost daily basis – I've never heard of anything like this," he said.
Weinstein said he doubts there was any such guidance 11 years ago and that Air Force officials have simply made up it up.
Military.com has already requested the documentation on the guidance and is awaiting a response.
Retired Master Sgt. Oscar Rodriguez was invited to deliver what has become his signature flag-folding speech during the retirement ceremony of Master Sgt. Charles Roberson on April 3. Roberson asked Rodriguez to go ahead with the speech even after his commander told him it was not to be delivered.
As an Air Force Honor Guard began the ceremonial folding of the flag, Rodriguez began his speech, only to be forcibly removed from the room. Now represented by First Liberty Institute, a religious rights law firm, Rodriguez may sue the Air Force if he is not given a written apology and assurances it will not happen again. He also wants the airmen who took him from the room punished.
Weinstein said that his group is now representing 14 airmen – enlisted and officer – at Travis, and may go to court on their behalf seeking a writ of mandamus – a judge's order to the Air Force to follow its own instructions.
According to Air Force Instruction 34-201 the only narrative or script that may be read during a flag-folding ceremony at an official event is one the Air Force drafted and published in 2005. The Air Force drafted a script because of the religious references and non-factual statements offered in various narratives about the meanings of the folds in the flag.
But the Air Force now says that even as the service adopted an official script in 2005 military legal counsel had crafted guidance distinguishing formal retirement ceremonies from informal ceremonies, in which "the retiring member may request an unofficial flag folding narration."
Air Force officials were not able to explain why the guidance was not included in the AFI, who it was disseminated to and how.
The Air Force also says that guidance is consistent with subsequent federal law and Defense Department policy reinforcing service member's right to religious expression.