First Liberty Institute representatives sent a demand letter this week to the U.S. Air Force on behalf of Oscar Rodriguez Jr., challenging the interpretation of USAF policies about religious neutrality and expression. Rodriguez is a 33-year Air Force veteran, who was removed by military personnel at a private, military retirement ceremony held at Travis Air Force Base in California, after his flag-folding speech was to include the word "God." Pentagon officials on Thursday launched an investigation into this matter.
The First Liberty letter and public statements threatened a federal lawsuit if an apology was not issued. Read previously published article from The Gospel Herald: God, Prayers in Military Flag-Folding Fight Brings Air Force Regulation Under Fire
Rodriguez said he was friends with the retiring officer, and was invited to give a flag-folding speech.
First Liberty Institute representatives said Rodriguez for the past few years has been regularly performing a patriotic flag-folding speech at retirement ceremonies and civic events. The speech, which Rodriguez reportedly has given hundreds of times, describes what the American flag symbolizes, and emphasizes how the flag represents the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It also contains references to the word "God," including the following three sentences that conclude the speech: God bless our flag. God bless our troops. God bless America.
Rodriguez claims a unit commander discovered he would be delivering his flag-folding speech at the retirement ceremony, and first attempted to prevent him from attending and participating in the event. Rodriguez said he then was told he could not give the speech.
Because the retiring officer still wanted Rodriguez to deliver the flag-folding speech at the ceremony as planned, they said they attempted to work with higher authorities at the base, offering to place notices that stated the word "God" would be mentioned. But Rodriguez said they did not receive a response from authorities.
During the actual ceremony, Rodriguez took his position to perform the flag-folding speech. However, he said a uniformed Airman approached and warned him, saying "You're really going to do this?"
Several military officers then physically removed Rodriguez from the room, while he shouted his speech.
"The Air Force had no right to assault a citizen, much less a 33-year military veteran, because they didn't want him to mention 'God,'" said Mike Berry, director of Military Affairs for First Liberty Institute, an organization whose members advocate for religious neutrality. "Mr. Rodriguez has a constitutional right to free speech and religious expression, even on a military base."
Berry asserts the military broke the law and abused its power. "We expect the Air Force to hold those responsible accountable, and allow Mr. Rodriguez to continue honoring the flag and other veterans who have sacrificed for our country."
Mikey Weinstein, of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said in a statement that the Air Force interpretation of policy "directly contravenes a decade-old Air Force regulation" which dictates the only -- and religiously neutral -- speech to be conducted at flag-folding ceremonies.
Military legal advisers reportedly issued guidance on the regulation in 2005, believing it was not meant to include retirement ceremonies, which are not mandatory -- one of the requirements for an event to be considered official.
Rodriguez enlisted in the U.S. Air Force Reserve in 1980.