- - Wednesday, April 17, 2019


Has anyone in the U.S. Air Force ever read “The Art of the Deal?” It was written by the current commander in chief, after all — and it would have helped the Air Force avoid litigation.

Attorneys from First Liberty Institute recently offered to drop a lawsuit against the Air Force if officials would simply state for the record that First Liberty client and Air Force veteran Oscar Rodriguez has the right to say the word “God” on an Air Force base. That’s all. But the Air Force rejected the deal. The lawsuit will proceed.

This legal conflict began when uniformed airmen physically assaulted a decorated veteran and removed him from a retirement ceremony because the flag-folding speech he’d been invited to deliver included the word “God.” The Air Force had an early opportunity to resolve the matter by simply apologizing, but authorities apparently didn’t know a good deal when they saw it. The Air Force also refused to apologize to Master Sgt. Chuck Roberson, who requested Mr. Rodriguez’s flag-folding speech and whose retirement ceremony was irreparably marred by the incident.

That brings us to a second work by President Trump that the Air Force’s legal team should read, his executive order protecting religious liberty.

This executive order, delivered last year, has made notable impact across the Executive Branch. The State Department has prioritized religious liberty in foreign relations and diplomacy. The Justice Department created a task force on religious liberty, including renewed focus on enforcement of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The Health and Human Services Department also created an entire division to protect rights of conscience for people of faith employed in the health care industry.

It’s clear that everyone got the message from the president that ensuring the free exercise of religion is a priority for this administration. Everyone except, it seems, the military. Or worse, they got the message but are ignoring it with impunity.

Either way, perhaps it is time for another executive order on religious liberty, this one addressed specifically to the military.

What happened to Oscar Rodriguez and Chuck Roberson is a disgrace. Three years after Mr. Rodriguez was thrown out of Mr. Roberson’s retirement ceremony, there is still no justice for these two decorated veterans. Adding salt to the wound is the fact that the unit commander responsible for what happened wasn’t removed from command or even reprimanded — he was promoted.

The men and women of our armed forces voluntarily commit themselves to fight and if necessary to die in defense of our Constitution — not our land, not our wealth, our God-given rights. What message does it send to our nation’s heroes past and present when the very rights for which they were willing to lay down their lives to defend are denied to their brothers-in-arms?

It shouldn’t take a direct order from the commander in chief to ensure the U.S. Constitution’s protections extend to those on the front line of freedom’s defense. But to this point military leaders haven’t gotten the message. Consequently, such an order might finally bring an end to this ordeal for Mr. Rodriguez and Mr. Roberson and prevent similar travesties in the future. Reaffirming the American ideal of religious liberty while protecting those who protect us is a two-for-one deal any president would be proud to make, especially one who wrote the book on the subject.

• Lathan Watts is director of legal communications for First Liberty Institute, a non-profit law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom for all Americans, and a regional fellow of the National Review Institute.

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