April 11, 2018
For over thirty years, Oscar Rodriguez served his country honorably as a Senior Master Sergeant in the United States Air Force. Since 2001, Rodriguez has delivered a speech at over 100 flag-folding civic and military events. The speech makes six mentions of God, mostly near the end:
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.
Rodriguez delivered this speech many times in his official role as a member of the honor guard. In 2005, the Air Force issued an official script that was the only one to be recited at flag-folding ceremonies.
Rodriguez continued to deliver his own flag-folding speech, albeit not in any official capacity. In March 2016, the now-retired Rodriguez was asked by fellow airman Master Sergeant Chuck Roberson to give his flag-folding speech at Roberson’s retirement ceremony. After learning that he could not prevent Rodriguez from attending, Roberson’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Sovitsky, told Roberson that Rodriguez could not give the speech as it ran afoul of the codified scripted speech, especially the references to God. However, because Rodriguez was retired from the Air Force and therefore a private citizen, he was entitled to give whatever speech he chose for the ceremony. Even after the disagreements over the speech, Roberson still wanted Rodriguez to give the speech at the retirement ceremony. On April 3, when Rodriguez rose to give the speech at the ceremony, he was forcibly removed by three uniformed Air Force officers. On June 19, 2016, the U.S. Air Force JAG Corps recommended an assault charge be filed against the officers who removed Rodriguez. The next day, Rodriguez’s attorneys at First Liberty sent a letter to the Air Force demanding an apology. On February 1, 2018, the Air Force refused to do so.
On April 3, 2018, two years to the day after the incident occurred, Roberson and Rodriguez are now suing the Air Force, Sovitsky, and the officers who removed Rodriguez. The charges include violations of due process, freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, and unreasonable seizure.
What seemed like a move towards uniformity was actually a veiled attempt to squelch Oscar Rodriguez’s freedom of speech. There is so much more at stake in this case than simply a formal apology from the Air Force; the First Amendment rights of every member of the U.S. military are in jeopardy. In 2016, 44,365 of you signed a petition in support of Senior Master Sergeant Oscar Rodriguez (Ret.) and Master Sergeant Charles Roberson, demanding that Colonel Raymond A. Kozak, commander of the 349th Air Mobility Wing, issue a formal apology on behalf of the Air Force. Now, we must continue to pressure the Air Force to acknowledge that they violated the First Amendment rights of Oscar Rodriguez, assaulted him, and disrupted a memorable ceremony for Charles Roberson and his family.
Our forefathers fled the persecution and oppression of western Europe because their freedom to speak and live out their faith had been compromised. Countless men and women have sacrificed life and limb so that everyone—civilian and soldier alike—may enjoy the God-given rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. That’s why we must continue to stand with Oscar Rodriguez and our friends at First Liberty as they continue fighting for the right of every American to freely express themselves.