Two men filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Air Force on Monday after airmen assaulted one of them for invoking God during a retirement ceremony.
Airmen assaulted Ogscar Rodriguez, Jr. and forcibly dragged him out of Chuck Roberson’s 2016 retirement ceremony for mentioning God during a flag folding ceremony Roberson had invited him to conduct. First Liberty Institute lawyers filed the lawsuit on behalf of veterans Rodriguez and Roberson when they discovered the Air Force, which refused to issue an apology, had not conducted an investigation into the allegations of assault and violations of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments.
“They had conducted a separate investigation into our claims of First Amendment violations, and in their investigation into the first amendment violations, they said that they were conducting a separate investigation into our allegations of assault and that they had violated the Fourth and Fifth Amendment,” First Liberty Institute Military Affairs Director Mike Berry told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
Berry requested at the time to see the results of the secondary investigation. Berry would receive the results once the investigations was completed, Air Force officials replied. Berry subsequently filed a lawsuit against the Air Force for withholding information about the investigation in response to a FOIA request filed in December 2016. The Air Force admitted to the court, however, they had not withheld the results of the investigation because they had not, in fact, conducted the investigation, Berry told TheDCNF.
“We resolved the FOIA lawsuit, and the Air Force, in that lawsuit, admitted to us and to the court that it wasn’t that they had withheld the results of the investigation; it was that they did not actually conduct the investigation. So that was kind of a shock to us,” Berry told TheDCNF.
Berry hoped to resolve the case fairly quickly and initially sought only an apology and an admission of wrongdoing from the Air Force, the military affairs director said. The Air Force’s refusal to apologize has made the lawsuit unavoidable, Berry said.
“We’ve been trying to resolve this with the Air Force for the past two years, and, you know, two years ago, we would have accepted a simple apology and an admission of wrong; but the Air Force has refused to do that, to even give that little relief to us and our clients. And so we’ve been left with no other choice but to file this lawsuit to vindicate our clients’ rights,” Berry told TheDCNF.
The incident occurred because Rodriguez had not been authorized to participate in the ceremony, the Air Force initially claimed in 2016, according to Air Force Times. Rodriguez was told several times he could not deliver his speech, as it did not conform to Air Force regulations, the Air Force Inspector General said in 2016. Rodriguez had been told he could attend the ceremony as a guest but could not participate or give his speech, the Air Force IG claimed.
Roberson, however, had personally invited Rodriguez to perform the flag folding ceremony after witnessing Rodriguez do it for someone else one month prior, the Air Force retiree said. Roberson knew Rodriguez would invoke God — one of the reasons he wanted Rodriguez to perform the flag folding ceremony. The Air Force also issued a statement later in 2016 saying religious speech during the flag folding ceremony, such as the one Rodriguez attempted, was permitted.
“Air Force personnel may use a flag folding ceremony script that is religious for retirement ceremonies,” the statement read, according to Air Force Times.
But the Air Force’s statement was false, given the actual regulations governing official retirement ceremonies at the time, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation claimed. The Air Force’s script for the ceremony “is the only one that may be used,” the regulations stated.
The Air Force has since revised those regulations.
“The official flag folding script (Figure A.3.2.) is not required and has been deleted,” a 2017 revision of the Flag Folding ceremony regulation states.
The lawsuit names Senior Master Sgt. Joe Bruno, Chief Master Sgt. Antonio Cordes, Technical Sergeant Al Hall and Chief Master Sgt. Dennis Thorpe — the NCOs who removed Rodriguez from the ceremony — as defendants along with Col. Michael Sovitsky, vice commander of the 446th Airlift Wing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Sovitsky was, at the time of the alleged assault, a lieutenant colonel commanding the 749th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, according to Air Force Times.
The Air Force has 60 days to respond to the current lawsuit, Berry told TheDCNF.
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