Air Force Launches Probe of Vet Dragged Out of Colleague’s Retirement Ceremony Over Mention of ‘God’

By Emily Blatter | June 24, 2016 | 2:44 PM EDT

Screenshot of Senior Master Sgt. Oscar Rodriguez being forcibly removed from a colleague's retirement ceremony at Travis AFB. (First Liberty Institute)

( The Pentagon  announced Wednesday that the Air Force Inspector General is investigating a complaint by retired Senior Master Sergeant Oscar Rodriguez that he was physically dragged out of a colleague’s private military retirement ceremony at Travis Air Force Base in California because his planned speech included the word “God.”

"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 said in a statement.

“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 April 3 incident was caught on video and posted on YouTube.

Retiring Master Sergeant Charles Roberson had asked Rodriguez, a 33-year veteran, to give a brief speech during the flag-folding part of his retirement ceremony. Rodriguez had given the same speech, which included the words “God bless our flag, God bless our troops, and God bless America,” several times before, including at a similar ceremony for one of Roberson’s colleagues.

“He can perform that speech like no other person that I’ve ever seen,” Roberson said. “He has so much passion for the flag and country, and that is what I wanted to be a part of my own ceremony.”

However, Lt. Col. Michael Sovitsky, Roberson’s commanding officer, “attempted to prevent Rodriguez from attending or participating,” according to a letter sent by the First Liberty Institute to Maj. Gen John Flournoy, Sovitsky’s commanding officer.

When Rodriguez stood to speak, he said that Technical Sergeant Alfred Hall approached him and warned him not to use God’s name in his remarks.

“This individual comes up to me and he says, ‘You’re not going to do this, are you?’” Rodriguez recalled.

“I’m thinking to myself ‘What is he talking about? That I’m really going to do what? Mention God? Yeah, I’m really going to do that’,” he said.

When Rodriguez began the familiar speech, Hall and two others seized him and forced him out of the auditorium. Hall and his companions declined to comment, and it is unclear whether they were acting under orders from Sovitsky.

“Certainly there are precedents for religious hostility in the military,” said Michael Berry, First Liberty's director of military affairs, who is representing Rodriguez. "We're seeing  those instances increase in frequency and severity. But I’ve never seen anything like this.”

In his letter to the Air Force, Berry accused Sovitsky, Hall and the others of violating the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments; conspiracy to interfere with Rodriguez’ civil rights; and violating both the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 and the Liability under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

“We have laid out four very reasonable requests,” Berry said, “and hope that they are willing to comply with them. But if not, then we are prepared to pursue any and all available legal options, which includes litigation if necessary.”

The requests include a written admission of illegal conduct, a written apology to Rodriguez, a written guarantee that Rodriguez will never again be assaulted while engaging in constitutionally-protected behavior, and that punitive action be taken against the responsible parties.

“You don’t get to violate somebody's constitutional rights and get away with it,” Berry said.

Travis Weber, a graduate of the Naval Academy and director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council, told that “there’s a serious problem” if the Air Force attempts to justify the assault.

“If the Air Force tries to justify this, and it turns out that yeah, he was kicked out because of reference to God, there is a severe problem with the state of the First Amendment,” said Weber.

“Now I expect that they will not try to justify this, and will admit wrongdoing somehow,” he continued.

“But this is beyond the pale when it comes to anyone attempting to justify this as permissible under the First Amendment, and free speech, freedom of religion, and everything else the First Amendment protects.”

Emily Blatter
Emily Blatter
Emily Blatter