An Air Force decision to create an official flag folding script with no religious references has gone largely unnoticed since its introduction last July. The script replaces a popular but unofficial script that contained biblical references that was removed from the Air Force website because of complaints from atheists.

Army Sgt. Chris Anderson, a member of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF), was one of the individuals who argued that the government was endorsing religion by posting the unofficial script.

"In order to ensure this religious flag-folding ceremony is not portrayed as an official government-sponsored flag-folding ceremony, I ask you to remove it," Anderson wrote to an unspecified government website after the Air Force removed the unofficial script.

MAAF President Jason Torpy told Christianity Today that there are several hundred active members in the organization and that "the Air Force rightfully distanced itself from the unofficial text to ensure that there would be no confusion."

Unofficial folds

Capt. David W. Small, secretary of Air Force public affairs, said the Air Force has not received any official feedback regarding the new script, which he said was developed in response to the widespread belief that the Air Force had authorized the earlier script.

That unofficial script, which Small says can be traced back to an anonymous Air Force chaplain during the 1980s, was read during some flag-folding ceremonies and attributed religious significance to 2 of the 13 folds of the flag.

"The 11th 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," it read. "The 12th 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."

According to US Code and Executive Orders governing the flag, there is no meaning ascribed to any folds of the flag. The new official script reflects upon the symbolism and history of the flag and does not contain any religious references—it was written using historical texts, including a 1917 Flag Day message by President Woodrow Wilson.

The official script, Small noted, "does not ascribe symbolism or meanings for particular folds of the flag" and is "based on history rather than one that could be interpreted as contrary to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution."

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Moment of silence

Perhaps surprisingly, the Air Force changes have not become a latest battleground in America's culture wars even though Congress has recently shown interest in protecting the American flag and the religious rights of military personnel.

A proposed constitutional amendment banning desecration of the flag failed in the Senate by one vote earlier this month while a bill barring condominium and homeowner associations from restricting flag displays passed unanimously in the House and Senate. Congress has also debated a measure on military chaplain prayers and passed an item on prayers at military academies. Meanwhile, a lawsuit and other events have focused attention on religious practices at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

The new flag folding ceremony, however, has received little media attention since the Las Vegas Review-Journal first reported the story. Christian watchdog groups have also stayed away from the issue.

No comment

Matthew Zimmerman, administrator for the chaplains commission of the National Association of Evangelicals, said he has received only a few e-mails about the new script from friends who thought he would be interested in the Review-Journal article.

One reason that so few people are complaining that the Air Force removed its online posting of the old script and instituted a new ceremony without religious references, Zimmerman suggested, is that few were even aware of the older version.

In his four years of military service, Zimmerman said, "I never once saw that ceremony performed in any way, shape, or form."

There are no official Air Force ceremonies that require reading a script during the folding of the flag but soldiers often ask for one to be read at their retirement ceremony. The only official flag-folding ceremonies in the Air Force are for funerals and retreats, both of which are silent.

According to the Air Force, the flag is folded at these ceremonies as a symbolic tribute to those who have served in our nation's armed services and out of respect for the flag.

Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, suggests that conservative religious groups have been silent on the change because they understand that the military cannot take an official position on religion if it is supposed to accommodate all faiths.

A survey conducted by the Air Force in June reveals that 0.6% of the 275,457 current enlistees describe themselves as "atheist" and that 17.8% have "no religious preference."

"Ceremonies used to be framed by Protestant Christian language because there was a broad consensus—they just assumed that is how public rituals were performed," Haynes said. "The vestiges of that have been challenged in recent decades as the nation has grown more diverse and as people of minority faiths and of no faith have found their voice."

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Related Elsewhere:

The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported on the change in its July 4 edition.

The earlier flag-folding script is still available on many unofficial websites.

An Air Force press release announced that the new script's "intent was to move away from giving meaning, or appearing to give meaning, to the folds of the flag and to just speak to the importance of the flag in U.S. Air Force history."