An Air Force veteran has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Air Force claiming he was pulled from a ceremony in the middle of a speech when he mentioned God.
Senior Master Sgt. Oscar Rodriguez told Fox News his First Amendment rights were violated.
“This is about my constitutional right,” Rodriguez said referring to the lawsuit that comes two years after the incident.
Video from the April 3, 2016 military retirement ceremony showed service members at Travis Air Force Base in California physically removing Rodriguez as he recited a traditional passage in a flag-folding ceremony. Rodriguez was invited to speak at the event by an outgoing fellow Master Sgt. Chuck Roberson from the 749th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, who was retiring from the U.S. Air Force after 27 years of service.
“I was removed from the speech because my script mentioned God. Air force officials did not want me to utter those words,” the 33-year veteran told Fox News. “There was no direct communication between the Air Force and myself to forbid me from making this speech.”
U.S. Air Force officials would not comment to Fox News on the pending litigation, but had released a statement last year: “Evidence indicated Mr. Rodriguez was removed by members of the squadron because he attempted to participate in the ceremony even though his participation had been disapproved by the hosting squadron commander… When it became clear that Mr. Rodriguez intended to act inconsistent with the commander’s restrictions he was removed by several squadron NCOs (noncommissioned officers). The inquiry found no evidence that the NCOs were motivated to impair Mr. Rodriguez’s constitutional rights of freedom of speech or religion.”
Rodriguez believes it was the religious references from the “Flag Folding Ceremony Air Force Script” that caused his ouster from the ceremony.
“Let us pray that God will reflect with admiration the willingness of one nation in her attempts to rid the world of tyranny, oppression, and misery,” one part of the script reads. “It is this one nation under God that we call, with honor, the United States of America.”
“God bless our flag. God bless our troops. God bless America,” are the closing words of the speech, which was revised by the Air Force in 2006. Rodriguez claims he and Roberson had the right to use the old script.
Hiram Sasser, a First Liberty Institute attorney representing Rodriguez said the Air Force “did not have the authority to ban him from the base and they did not have the authority to ban him from participating in the ceremony,”
According to Fox News:
Lawyers representing Rodriguez said Monday that the dispute between the veteran and the Air Force was over his plans to recite a speech mentioning God. Rodriguez was known on the base to recite such passages, and Air Force officials tried to prevent him from doing so at the retirement ceremony, his attorneys claimed.
The complaint — filed late Monday — claimed officers at the base exchanged an email shortly after the incident. In that email, an officer — whose name was redacted — suggested filing assault charges against the men who removed Rodriguez from the ceremony, the lawsuit stated. Rodriguez’s attorney said they believe that email bolsters their case.
“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,” Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokeswoman, told Fox News in 2016. “Air Force personnel may use a flag folding ceremony script that is religious for retirement ceremonies.”
First Liberty claims the lawsuit came about because the Air Force refused to apologize for the forcible actions.
“First Liberty Institute sent a letter to the United States Air Force asking for an apology for how it handled Rodriguez and disrupted Roberson’s retirement ceremony. 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,” a statement on the organization’s website read.
Roberson was shocked by the action, confirming to Fox News that he had invited Rodriguez to recite the speech at his retirement ceremony.
“I wanted the ceremony to reflect the American values I spent my career defending – respect for God, family, and country,” Roberson said.
“I couldn’t believe what happened. I still can’t believe it. All I want now is for the Air Force to apologize for ruining this once in a lifetime moment but they refuse to do so,” he said.