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Retired Airmen Sue Air Force After Officers Assault Veteran to Silence 'God Bless America' Speech

Hispanic retired Air Force airman in front of text of the First Amendment

Two retired airmen have filed a lawsuit against the Air Force and specific officers who allegedly assaulted one of the airmen, preventing him from giving a flag-folding speech because it included references to God. Not only did officers attempt to silence a retired airman's speech, but they also physically assaulted him and refused to apologize afterward.

In March 2016, Chuck Roberson asked Oscar Rodriguez, Jr. to deliver a flag-folding speech with multiple references to God, including "God Bless America," at his retirement ceremony. During the ceremony on April 3, uniformed officers prevented Rodriguez from speaking, forcibly removing him from the stage. As late as February 2018, the officers refused to apologize, despite an official assessment that they had assaulted Rodriguez.

"The assault these Air Force officials perpetrated was not only a physical assault against Oscar Rodriguez, but an assault on his constitutional rights," eee the law firm representing the retired airmen, told PJ Media. First Liberty filed the suit on Monday.

"The fact that these Air Force officials have refused to offer a simple apology to Oscar and Chuck Roberson, whose retirement ceremony they ruined, is a slap in the face to all veterans," Berry told PJ Media.

Before Roberson's retirement ceremony, Rodriguez had heard that certain Air Force officials, including then-Lieutenant Colonel Michael Sovitsky, disapproved of the flag-folding speech Rodriguez had delivered since 2001 — especially disliking the speech's religious overtones and multiple references to God. Sovitsky served as commander of the 749th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Travis Air Force Base from April 2014 through April 2016, including on April 3.

On the day before the ceremony, Roberson met with officers who told Roberson that it was his choice to invite Rodriguez to the ceremony but asked him not to do so, adding point-blank that Rodriguez would not be speaking at the ceremony.

On the morning of the ceremony, Sovitsky approached Roberson and said he wanted to make sure that Roberson knew Rodriguez was not allowed to perform the flag-folding speech. Roberson told Rodriguez that despite Sovitsky's opposition, he wanted Rodriguez to attend the ceremony and perform the speech.

The ceremony began smoothly, but officers interrupted it when Rodriguez took the stage to speak. Three uniformed men pushed him back, using force to prevent him from delivering the speech.

On June 19, 2016, and internal Air Force email indicated that officers within the U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps believed that "an assault charge" may be appropriate. The email noted that officers were "pushing and/or pulling [him] by the arms and/or chest in an attempt to remove [him] from a retirement ceremony."

First Liberty sent a demand letter on June 20, 2016. The Air Force refused to apologize. On February 1, 2018, Deputy General Counsel Craig Smith acknowledged the organization's request "that the command provide a written admission of wrongdoing and unlawful actions by the members involved" and that "a written apology be issued to Mr. Rodriguez."

Smith confirmed that the Air Force would "decline to offer a written admission or apology."

Rodriguez crafted his flag-folding speech in 2001, and delivered it many times in his official role as a member of the Honor Guard. At that time, the military branch had not codified an official flag-folding script. In 2005, however, the Air Force issued Instruction 34-1201, codifying such a script and stating that "when a flag folding ceremony is desired and conducted by Air Force personnel at any location ... this script is the only one that may be used."

Rodriguez kept delivering his flag-folding speech, but not in any official capacity. The speech mentions God six times, once referring to the United States as "one nation under God," three times in asking for God's blessing, and once in calling for prayer to God. These references all emerge right at the end of the brief remarks:

Our flag is a beacon, recognized 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 as Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines is a noble one for there is no heart stronger than that of a volunteer. Let us pray that God will reflect with admiration the willingness of one nation in her attempt to rid the world of tyranny, oppression, and misery. 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.

From context, it seems clear that Sovitsky and the officers who assaulted Rodriguez did so in order to prevent him from delivering this brief speech and these mostly innocuous mentions of God.

Roberson and Rodriguez sued the Air Force, Sovitsky, and the officers who assaulted Rodriguez for nine counts of violations of due process, First Amendment freedom of speech, First Amendment free exercise of religion, and Fourth Amendment unreasonable seizure.

While the federal government cannot establish any religion, a retiring service member should be free to invite a private citizen to give a religious-themed speech at his retirement ceremony. The opposition and threats Roberson received, and then the actual assault suffered by Rodriguez, are indeed "a slap in the face to all veterans."

These underhanded actions suggested that Sovitsky and the officers under him would interfere in a veteran's retirement ceremony and censor a speaker with whom they disagreed. Their sheepishness in doing so — passive aggressive threats only later followed by direct action — suggested that they knew they lacked the authority to censor Rodriguez, but they did so anyway.

Watch the assault below.