- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2016

A veteran is threatening legal action against the U.S. Air Force if it does not apologize for forcibly removing him from a retirement ceremony at Travis Air Force Base, where he was invited to give a speech referencing “God.”

Oscar Rodriguez, a 33-year Air Force veteran, was solicited to speak at the April flag-folding ceremony in honor of retiring Master Sgt. Charles Roberson, who heard Mr. Rodriguez deliver the same address one month prior and wanted it performed at his own retirement.

But when Mr. Rodriguez stood to deliver his three-minute oration at the Sacramento base, a man in uniform followed him to the front of the room and obstructed his view of the audience.

Pretending to ignore the interference, Mr. Rodriguez refused to cede the stage and began his speech anyway. After two more men in fatigues rushed the stage, he was pushed and dragged out of the assembly room against his will, for referencing God.

“It was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life,” Mr. Rodriguez said in a press release on Monday. “I have given more than three decades of service to the military and made many sacrifices for my country. To have the Air Force assault me and drag me out of a retirement ceremony simply because my speech included the word ‘God’ is something I never expected from our military.”

Mr. Rodriguez retained the First Liberty Institute to represent him in potential legal action against the Air Force.

First Liberty sent a letter to the Air Force and to the commander at Travis Air Force Base on Monday, demanding an apology by June 27 and threatening to “pursue all available legal options” on Mr. Rodriguez’s behalf.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Mike Berry, director of military affairs at First Liberty. “Where people in uniform come and grab somebody and physically treat them like this, and forcibly drag them away against his will because of what he’s going to say, and because of what he was going to say is the word ‘God’? That’s insane. I can’t fathom that that would be happening in our country on a military base.”

With a booming voice and commanding countenance, Mr. Rodriguez is a popular orator who has delivered more than 100 flag-folding addresses in a vigorously patriotic but meticulously scrutinized performance.

Mr. Roberson said he saw that passion on display at a retirement ceremony one month prior to his own, prompting him to extend an invitation to Mr. Rodriguez.

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

“That the Air Force would do this to myself — because it’s my retirement — I was very embarrassed and humiliated in front of all of my family and friends,” he said.

The standard flag-folding oration was stripped of any religious significance by the Pentagon in 2005, but many service members still prefer the former version and request it at their retirement ceremonies. The traditional version closes with, “God bless our flag. God bless our troops. God bless America.”

The tension over the flag-folding speech is emblematic of a larger debate about religious expression in the military.

Marine Lance Cpl. Monifa Sterling, for instance, was court-martialed and discharged in 2014 for refusing to remove three Bible verses posted on her work station. Her case is currently on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, after the Court of Criminal Appeals sided with the Marines, saying the verses did not constitute religious expression and weren’t protected.

The Navy tried to inflict career-ending punishments on Chaplain Wes Modder in 2014 for holding a biblical view of marriage and sexuality. He was eventually exonerated and allowed to continue serving. Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said the Air Force was simply following protocol by removing Mr. Rodriguez from an official event before he could utter the word “God.”

He cited Air Force Instruction 1-1 Section 2.12.2, which says the right to practice religion “does not excuse you from complying with directives, instructions, and lawful orders.”

“The commander absolutely did the right thing,” Mr. Weinstein said. “The Air Force is not at all over the line here … If the retiree wants to have an unofficial retirement party at Chick-Fil-A or Hobby Lobby and go into the whole religious thing,” he can.

But “the line being crossed is whether it’s official or not,” Mr. Weinstein said.

Additionally, Mr. Weinstein said Supreme Court precedent is against Mr. Rodriguez, pointing to the 1974 decision in Parker v. Levy, which held the First Amendment did not protect an Army physician who urged enlisted men to disobey orders in protest of the Vietnam War.

Mr. Berry said that case does not apply here, because Mr. Rodriguez attended the ceremony as a private citizen, not in any military capacity.

“Oscar is a private citizen and he was invited there by the retiring service member to give a certain flag-folding speech, that’s probably the most important factor,” he said. “Whether this is an official ceremony or a private ceremony … it’s a private citizen who’s invited to the ceremony and is protected by the First Amendment under federal law.”

• Bradford Richardson can be reached at brichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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