A retired airman who was thrown out of a friend's retirement ceremony while attempting — at the retiring airman's request — to deliver a flag-folding speech mentioning God did not violate any Air Force policies, according to the Air Force. Such religious scripts are allowed at retirement ceremonies because they are private functions and attendance is not mandatory.
Retired Senior Master Sgt. Oscar Rodriguez is threatening to sue the service after he was physically removed from the ceremony. He is being represented by First Liberty Institute, a religious freedom organization.
"Air Force personnel may use a flag folding ceremony script that is religious for retirement ceremonies," the Air Force said in a statement to Air Force Times. "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. The Air Force places the highest value of the rights of its personnel in matters of religion and facilitates the free exercise of religion by its members."
The controversy has now reached the highest levels of the Air Force. Secretary Deborah Lee James has now ordered the Air Force inspector general to review the incident, spokeswoman Capt. Brooke Brzozowske said in an email Wednesday.
In a June 20 letter to Maj. Gen. John Flournoy Jr., commander of the 4th Air Force at March Air Reserve Base, California, and Col. Raymond Kozak, commander of the 349th Air Mobility Wing at Travis, Michael Berry, the senior counsel and director of military affairs at First Liberty, said those NCOs committed unlawful assault and battery when they forcibly removed him.
Berry also said Rodriguez is the victim of religious discrimination, and that his First Amendment rights to freely speak and freely exercise his religion were violated.
"Military officers and NCOs have no right to assault and drag away a private citizen simply because they do not want him to mention the word 'God,' " Berry wrote in the letter. "The fact that Mr. Rodriguez was going to mention the word 'God,' at the behest of the retiring service member, is an insufficient basis to silence him, much less commit assault and battery against him, followed by forcibly dragging him away."
Berry said in the letter that Lt. Col. Michael Sovitsky, the commanding officer of the 749th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Travis, tried to stop Rodriguez from attending Roberson's retirement ceremony or delivering the speech once he learned Rodriguez planned to deliver a speech that referenced God.
Berry said that when Sovitsky found out he could not bar Rodriguez from attending the retirement ceremony as a guest, he told Roberson not to allow Rodriguez to speak. Roberson told Sovitsky he would not change his plans.
The letter said that Rodriguez and Roberson tried to resolve the conflict before the retirement day, and offered to place signs on the auditorium doors saying that the word "God" would be referenced during the ceremony.
Berry said in the letter that Sovitsky either told the NCOs to throw Rodriguez out, or the NCOs acted on their own and Sovitsky did not stop them. Either way, Berry said, Sovitsky caused or allowed Air Force members to "intentionally [violate] the constitutional rights of a private American citizen."
"Such acts fly in the face of the Air Force's core values," Berry said.
In another video posted by First Liberty, Roberson expressed disbelief about what happened at his retirement ceremony.
"It's my retirement," Roberson said. "I was very embarrassed and humiliated in front of all my family and friends."
In 2013, Rodriguez posted a YouTube video of himself performing the same speech at his own retirement ceremony. It contains these references to God:
- "This [the flag] is what we live for; this is what we will fight for, and if necessary, to touch the hand of God in her defense."
- "Let us pray that God will reflect with admiration the willingness of one nation in her attempt to rid the world of tyranny, oppression and misery."
- "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."
In a statement provided to Air Force Times, the Air Force said that personnel are allowed to use a flag folding ceremony script that is religious for retirement ceremonies.
"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," the statement read. "The Air Force places the highest value of the rights of its personnel in matters of religion and facilitates the free exercise of religion by its members."
Stephen Losey covers Air Force leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times.