A retired Air Force master sergeant strong-armed out of another airman’s retirement ceremony in April because he began making a speech that referenced God is demanding a written apology from his former service and disciplinary action against the airmen who muscled him from the event.
Retired Master Sgt. Oscar Rodriguez also wants the Air Force to admit it was wrong and written assurance the Travis Air Force Base, California, air wing will not "commit assault or battery" against him in the future for engaging in the same conduct, according to the law firm representing Rodriguez.
"Should you fail to respond or deny our request for relief, we are prepared to pursue all available legal options," Mike Berry, senior counsel and director of military affairs for First Liberty Institute said in a demand letter to Air Force June 20.
Berry told Military.com on Tuesday that a lawsuit against the Air Force is an option. If that happens the suit would likely be filed in California or in Washington, D.C.
During the speech, which Rodriguez has reportedly given at a number of ceremonies in the area, the retired master sergeant references God a number of times.
The April 3 incident, captured on video, shows Rodriguez stepping forward as two airmen in dress uniform begin the ceremonial folding of the American flag during the retirement of Master Sgt. Charles Roberson. As he does so an airman in BDUs approaches him, apparently directing him to return to his seat. When he does not do so a second airman – who Berry believes is Lt. Col. Michael A. Sovitsky, Roberson’s commander at the 749th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron – begins to intervene.
He is dissuaded by another enlisted airman, who joins with two others in forcibly removing Rodriguez from the event even as he continues making the speech.
An Air Force spokeswoman told Military.com on Tuesday that officials are reviewing the matter but could not comment at this time.
Retired Master Sgt. Charles Roberson, in a video statement posted to the First Liberty website, said he invited Rodriguez to his ceremony after hearing him deliver the speech a month earlier.
"He has so much passion for the flag and country, and that is what I wanted to be a part of my own ceremony," Roberson says in the video. "That the Air Force would do this to myself, as it was my retirement … I was very embarrassed and humiliated in front of all my family and friends."
In a separate video, also posted to First Liberty, Rodriquez said that "to have my fellow [Air Force] family throw me out of the ceremony because of the mention of God is beyond mean."
Berry said that Rodriguez, as a private citizen and an Air Force veteran, "has the right under the First Amendment to engage in speech, including religious speech."
Berry said the retirement ceremony was not a command event, so no one in attendance was forced to be there.
Mikey Weinstein of the watchdog group Military Religious Freedom Foundation, who often finds himself at loggerheads with the Air Force over religion issues, said he believes the Air Force handled this incident correctly.
Weinstein said the retiree probably should have been court martialed for asking Rodriguez to make the speech even after he was told by his commander, Sovitsky, that it was not to be delivered.
The ceremony was held on base and at that point Roberson was still on active duty and subject to military law, Weinstein said.
"It doesn’t have to be mandatory [for Air Force regulations to apply]. This was an official Air Force event, which falls under the cognizance of the commander," Weinstein said.
TheAir Force adopted a flag folding script more than 10 years ago to remove religious references in speeches and the various claims made by speakers about the meaning of the flag folds.
In an official article published in 2005 the Air Force said there were many scripts being used, "but many … are religious in nature and also ascribe meaning to the individual folds."
"Our intent was to move away from giving meaning, or appearing to give meaning, to the folds of the flag and to just speak to the importance of the flag in U.S. Air Force history,"the Air Force’s office of protocol said at the time.