Oscar Rodriguez, the retired senior master sergeant whose ejection during a flag-folding ceremony at Travis Air Force Base in California sparked a nationwide uproar, is suing the Air Force for alleged civil rights violations.
In April 2016, Rodriguez was thrown out of a retirement ceremony for his friend Master Sgt. Charles Roberson when he stood — at Roberson’s request — to deliver an unauthorized speech during a flag-folding ceremony that mentioned God.
Roberson is also a plaintiff to the lawsuit, which was filed on their behalf by the religious freedom organization First Liberty Institute. Rodriguez is alleging violations of his rights under the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments of the Constitution.
“No one should be assaulted for saying the word ‘God’ on an Air Force base,” Hiram Sasser, general counsel for First Liberty, said in a release. “Certainly, our United States airmen are strong enough to be exposed to the word ’God’ at a retirement ceremony.”
The Air Force Inspector General said in a September 2016 report that Rodriguez was not removed because his speech mentioned God, but because it was unauthorized.
The IG said that Rodriguez had been told multiple times that he could not deliver his speech because the ceremony was an official on-base retirement, and his speech was not the one spelled out in Air Force regulations. He was told he could attend the ceremony quietly as a guest but not as a participant.
Rodriguez ignored those instructions and stood up to deliver his speech. After delivering his opening lines, he was dragged out by four noncommissioned officers while continuing to shout his speech.
A video of his ejection posted by the John Q. Public blog went viral, and the incident prompted a debate over whether the officials at Travis went too far.
“I spent my career in the Air Force defending this country from its enemies,” Rodriguez said in the First Liberty release. “I never thought any Air Force official would be afraid that someone would use the word ‘God’ on base, and I am shocked that they would assault me for trying.”
In the wake of the uproar, the Air Force in June 2016 revised its rules to specifically allow religious language during flag foldings at retirement ceremonies.
The lawsuit asks the court for a judgment declaring the Air Force violated Rodriguez and Roberson’s rights to free speech, free exercise of religion and due process and rights against unreasonable search and seizure.
It also asks for a permanent injunction requiring the Air Force to follow its revised policy and allow Rodriguez to perform his speech at retirement ceremonies and other events when he is invited to do so.
The plaintiffs are also seeking unspecified damages and attorney’s fees.
“This retirement ceremony was supposed to be the culmination of my career in the Air Force,” Roberson said. “I couldn’t believe what happened. I still can’t believe it. I want these Air Force officials to apologize for ruining this once in a lifetime moment.”
The lawsuit also names Col. Michael Sovitsky, who was at the time a lieutenant colonel commanding the 749th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron and is now the vice commander of the 446th Airlift Wing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, as another defendant.
The lawsuit says Sovitsky and other officials “did not appreciate Rodriguez’s unique flag-folding speech and disapproved of the speech’s religious overtones and multiple references to ‘God.’”
In the suit, the plaintiffs said Sovitsky told Roberson the morning of the retirement ceremony that Rodriguez would not be allowed to perform the speech, and Roberson responded that Rodriguez was aware of his wishes.
But, the suit said, despite Sovitsky’s wishes, Roberson told Rodriguez that he wanted him to attend the ceremony and perform the speech when the flag-folding music began to play.
Senior Master Sgt. Joe Bruno, Chief Master Sgt. Antonio Cordes, Technical Sergeant Al Hall, and Chief Master Sgt. Dennis Thorpe — the NCOs who forcibly removed Rodriguez from the ceremony — are also defendants in the suit.
First Liberty also sued the Air Force last July, alleging the service was withholding information on the incident.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.