Friday, October 26, 2007

In Which We Reaffirm Our Identity as Both an Annoying Establishment Clause Junkie and Free Exercise Clause Fan

This morning's Daily Star reports on non-fire-related strife from Riverside, California, regarding the flag-folding ceremony at veterans' funerals.
Through thousands of military burials, Memorial Honor Detail volunteers at Riverside National Cemetery in California have folded each American flag 13 times and recited the significance of every fold to survivors of those being laid to rest.

The 11th fold celebrates Jewish war veterans and glorifies the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

A single complaint lodged against the words for the 11th fold recently prompted the National Cemetery Administration to ban the entire recital at all 125 national cemeteries.

Hmm. I wondered if the complainant took more umbrage at the recognition of Jewish people than at the more obtuse God reference, which I figured must be the only nod to a deity in the ceremony. So I read the full explanation of the folds provided in the sidebar and came away deeply confused.

1. Symbol of life.
2. Symbol of our belief in the eternal life.
3. In honor and remembrance of the veteran departing our ranks who gave a portion of life for the defense of our country to attain a peace throughout the world.
4. Represents our weaker nature, for as American citizens trusting in God, it is to him we turn in times of peace as well as in times of war for his divine guidance.
5. A tribute to our country, for in the words of Stephen Decatur, "Our country, in dealing with other countries, may she always be right; but it is still our country, right or wrong."
6. Represents where our hearts lie. It is with our heart that we pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
7. A tribute to our armed forces.
8. A tribute to the one who entered into the valley of the shadow of death, that we might see the light of day, and to honor mother, for whom it flies on Mother's Day.
9. A tribute to womanhood.
10. A tribute to father.
11. 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.
12. 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.
13. When the flag is completely folded, the stars are uppermost, reminding us of our national motto, "In God We Trust."

My first reaction, based on the flowery language, religious references, and non sequitur grab-bag Americana, was that it must have been written by Stan down at the VFW 357 Pulaski Post, so what's it doing in an official military ceremony? I mean, seriously, someone was faced with a total Furr's Buffet of Establishment Clause violations wherein seven of the thirteen points make a religious reference and he chose to be offended by the single one that explicitly mentions the Jews? But it turns out this is not part of the US Flag Code after all, which is a relief. As points out, the thirteen folds involved in creating the nice triangular flag packet were not designed with any symbolism in mind; it just conveniently works out that the number of folds required matches the number of original colonies. No one seems to know where the ascribed fold meanings came from, but the thought process behind them is apparent (and clearly stated here):

The flag folding ceremony represents the same religious principles on which our country was originally founded.

At least one site recognizes that the multiple references to God violate would military guidelines and the Establishment Clause, should they be used in an official government-sponsored ceremony. The amazingly conservative and evangelical Air Force, of all branches, has adopted a new flag-folding script for these very reasons.

Individuals who hear those scripts end up attributing the contents of the script to the U.S. Air Force. But the reality is that neither Congress, nor federal laws related to the flag, assign any special meaning to the individual folds. Hudspath said that was the primary motive for creating a new flag-folding script.

"Our 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," he said.

The new script, approved in July, focuses on flag history and the significance of the flag within the Air Force: "Today, our flag flies on constellations of Air Force satellites that circle our globe, and on the fin flash of our aircraft in harms way in every corner of the world. Indeed, it flies in the heart of every Airman who serves our great nation. The sun never sets on our Air Force, nor on the flag we so proudly cherish," the new script reads.

Well, good on them for not pandering to Teh Sappy. Anyway, given all this, I'm not sure that the activities of the Memorial Honor Detail are subject to Establishment Clause restrictions. They are a strictly volunteer organization that performs a ceremony at the request of the deceased veteran's family. Their participation in graveside services is permitted by the National Cemetery but is not compulsory, so in that sense they are no different from the religious minister or atheist Uncle Joe a family might ask to say a few words in memorium at a burial there. I can't imagine the National Cemeteries' blanket ban of this particular volunteer-led flag-folding ceremony will withstand even the lowest level challenge, as it's a free exercise issue, not an establishment issue. Was this entire kerfuffle an exercise in anti-Semitism masquerading as a church-state argument? That one's murkier.

1 comment:

Ed Darrell said...

Good catch. This hoary old, faux patriotic, historically inaccurate and embarrassing ceremony just won't die.

I've been working on line to blot it out for over a year:

Thanks for the help! Keep on blogging.