Charles Roberson was retiring from the U.S. Air Force and asked a friend, Oscar Rodriguez Jr., to say a few words at his ceremony about the meaning of the folding of the flag, a tradition at such events.
When Rodriguez, a retired Air Force master sergeant, stood up to speak, however, several uniformed airmen grabbed him, dragged him from the building and ordered him off the base.
Now Roberson and Rodriguez are suing the Air Force for damages, alleging officials at Travis Air Force Base in California were determined not to allow Rodriguez to mention God in his speech.
The case, filed by First Liberty Institute and lawyers with Kirkland and Ellis in U.S. District Court in Washington, alleges violations of the religious liberty of both men.
It happened in April 2016 when, under orders, “uniformed Airmen abruptly interrupted a flag-folding ceremony at Roberson’s retirement and assaulted Rodriguez before he could use the word ‘God’ in a flag folding speech.”
“No one should be assaulted for saying the word ‘God’ on an Air Force base,” said Hiram Sasser, general counsel for First Liberty Institute. “Certainly, our United States airmen are strong enough to be exposed to the word ‘God’ at a retirement ceremony.”
Rodriguez had been asked by Roberson to give a talk about the traditional folding of the American flag, which mentions God.
The officer in charge, Michael Sovitsky, had tried to discourage Rodriguez from even attending, allegedly telling him he was not welcome.
Other defendants are the U.S. Air Force and Joe Bruno, Antonio Cordes, Al Hall and Dennis Thorpe.
“I spent my career in the Air Force defending this country from its enemies,” said Rodriguez. “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!”
The team of lawyers said Air Force officials clarified that their rules allow religious language during such ceremonies, but they refused to apologize for “ruining the only retirement ceremony” for Roberson.
“This retirement ceremony was supposed to be the culmination of my career in the Air Force,” said Roberson. “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 complaint notes Rodriguez performed his flag-folding ceremony many times while in the Air Force and never was admonished about it. He continued doing it as an individual after his own retirement, without problems until the Roberson event.
The case claims Sovitsky tried to ban Rodriguez from the building where Roberson’s retirement was planned. But then Rodriguez was told he could attend as a guest. Several military managers for the retirement program said the flag-folding speech was banned.
But the officials’ action violated the First Amendment, free exercise of religion, due process, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, freedom of speech and other protected rights.
In fact, an internal U.S. Air Force email sent after the ceremony reportedly showed officials “had at least some reason to suspect that ‘religion'” may “come out as the root cause of the situation that took place.”
The case asks for damages, attorneys’ fees and costs.
WND previously reported a Freedom of Information Act case developed when the Air Force refused to release results of its investigation.
First Liberty posted a video of the assault:
It also posted Rodriguez’s explanation of the incident: