Veterans Claim Air Force Unlawfully Silenced Religious Speech

WASHINGTON (CN) – A veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom claims in court the Air Force trampled on his free speech and other civil rights when it ejected him from a service retirement ceremony after deeming his prepared comments too religious.

In a federal complaint filed in Washington, D.C. on Monday, plaintiffs Oscar Rodriguez Jr., and Charles Roberson, both retired Air Force master sergeants, claim their dispute with the Air Force began in 2016 during the retirement ceremony for a fellow service member at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California.

During such ceremonies it is customary for a “flag-folding” speech to be given. The ceremony honors the retiring individual’s service to the nation.

At the event, Rodriguez, who is represented by Washington, D.C.- based attorney Christopher Bartolomucci, performed his unique version of the traditional flag-folding speech often given at such ceremonies.

The words so moved Roberson that he invited Rodriguez to perform the speech at his own then-pending retirement.

According to U.S. Air Force code, while there is “no specific meaning assigned to the folds of a flag,” and while there are many flag folding ceremony options and speeches offered by special interest groups, none of those are reflective of “official”  Air Force ceremonies.

The official script for the deceased or retired was developed to provide “historical perspective of the flag,” the code states.  It describes the flag’s appearance and the symbolism of its colors. It also recounts history, citing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the anthem’s composer, Francis Scott Key; and its inspiration for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Rodriguez’s speech, crafted in 2001, while including historical perspective, also specifically referenced God.

“Our flag is a beacon around the world to represent freedom during times of peace, or during times of war. This is what we live for. This is what we will fight for and if necessary to touch the hand of God in her defense, the charge that we accept … is a noble one for there is no heart stronger than that of a volunteer,” the speech said. “Let us pray that God will reflect with admiration the willingness of one nation … 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.”

According to the complaint, Rodriguez was warned by a superintendent of the honor guard at Travis that the religious overtones “may get him in trouble.”

Nonetheless, the message was so popular, Rodriguez recorded himself reciting it, distributed copies to retirees who requested it, and delivered it in person countless times.

He received commendation from lawmakers and command chiefs for the speech, he says. But despite the positive feedback,  certain officials, including defendant Michael Sovitsky, then lieutenant colonel at the base, “did not appreciate” the speech and “disapproved of [its] religious overtones and multiple references to God.”

Rodriguez alleges he never received a request to stop delivering the speech and acknowledged that he understood the Air Force prescribes a secular script for use in official flag folding ceremonies.

Once retired and no longer a uniformed honor guardsman, Rodriguez claims he was then made fully eligible to deliver the speech wherever and to whomever asked for it, including Roberson.

In April 2016, though defendant Sovitsky allegedly warned Roberson that Rodriguez was barred from giving the speech, the men agreed to forge ahead.

From the front row and once festivities were underway, Rodriguez stood and began reciting his speech. He was quickly dragged out and according to the complaint, “in plain view” of Sovitsky.

“Rodriguez’s forcible removal occurred within Sovitsky’s plain view, and Sovitsky did nothing to stop or prevent it,” the complaint states. “The four non-commissioned officers would not have forcibly removed Rodriguez without Sovitsky’s approval.”

Watching Rodriguez dragged out of the auditorium and  “physically assaulted” as he continued to deliver his speech caused both of the men humiliation and distress, Roberson claims. Worse, the veteran claims, it was not until Rodriguez was hauled away that anyone thought to ask if the man was his honored guest.

The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment affirming the U.S. Air Force, Sovitsky and co-defendants Joe Bruno, Antonio Cordes, Al Hall and Dennis Thorpe, violated their First Amendment right to free speech and free religious exercise. Rodriguez also alleges defendants violated his Fourth and Fifth Amendment due process rights.

Both Roberson and Rodriguez seek injunctive relief ordering the Air Force to follow its own policy on flag folding ceremonies which states that while personnel may use a script that is religious for retirement ceremonies, since the 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.”

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