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Tuesday, January 01, 2019 02:44 PM

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Retired Air Force Sergeant Sues U.S. Air Force After He Was Forcibly Removed From Retirement Ceremony Mentioning "God" Mid-Speech

A retired Air Force sergeant who was forcibly removed two years ago from a military retirement ceremony as he recited a traditional passage honoring the flag filed a lawsuit Monday, claiming he was ousted for mentioning the word "God."

Senior Master Sgt. Oscar Rodriguez was invited to speak at an April 3, 2016 ceremony by an outgoing fellow master sergeant from the 749th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. Video of the event showed Rodriguez being physically removed by service members at Travis Air Force Base in California as he was delivering a flag-folding speech.

On Monday, two years after the incident, Rodriguez sued the U.S. Air Force, demanding an apology and admission of wrongdoing. In an interview with Fox News, he claimed his First Amendment rights were violated.

"This is about my constitutional right," Rodriguez said of the suit.

"I was removed from the speech because my script mentioned God. Air force officials did not want me to utter those words," he told Fox News. "There was no direct communication between the Air Force and myself to forbid me from making this speech."

The U.S. Air Force declined to comment Monday on pending litigation. In a statement released last year, officials said, "Evidence indicated Mr. Rodriguez was removed by members of the squadron because he attempted to participate in the ceremony even though his participation had been disapproved by the hosting squadron commander... When it became clear that Mr. Rodriguez intended to act inconsistent with the commander's restrictions he was removed by several squadron NCOs (noncommissioned officers). The inquiry found no evidence that the NCOs were motivated to impair Mr. Rodriguez's constitutional rights of freedom of speech or religion."

At the time of the event, a spokeswoman from the reserve told Fox News the confrontation stemmed from "an unplanned participation" at the event.

"Rodriguez ignored numerous requests to respect the Air Force prescribed ceremony and unfortunately was forcibly removed," a Travis official said in a statement to Fox News following the incident.

Rodriguez claimed his recitation of an old version of the "Flag Folding Ceremony Air Force Script," which was later scrubbed because of religious references, prompted his ouster. Rodriguez delivered the speech at the request of Master Sgt. Chuck Roberson, who was retiring from the U.S. Air Force after 33 years of service.

"Let us pray that God will reflect with admiration the willingness of one nation in her attempts to rid the world of tyranny, oppression, and misery," part of the flag-folding speech reads. "It is this one nation under God that we call, with honor, the United States of America."

The speech closes with the words, "God bless our flag. God bless our troops. God bless America."

Even though the Air Force revised the script in 2006, Rodriguez claimed it was his right -- and Roberson's right -- to invoke the older version.

Lawyers representing Rodriguez said Monday that the dispute between the veteran and the Air Force was over his plans to recite a speech mentioning God. Rodriguez was known on the base to recite such passages, and Air Force officials tried to prevent him from doing so at the retirement ceremony, his attorneys claimed.

"[The U.S. Air Force] did not have the authority to ban him from the base and they did not have the authority to ban him from participating in the ceremony," said Hiram Sasser, general counsel for First Liberty Institute and one of the lead attorneys in the case. First Liberty identifies itself as a legal team "dedicated exclusively to protecting religious liberty for all Americans."

The complaint -- filed late Monday -- claimed officers at the base exchanged an email shortly after the incident. In that email, an officer -- whose name was redacted -- suggested filing assault charges against the men who removed Rodriguez from the ceremony, the lawsuit stated. Rodriguez's attorney said they believe that email bolsters their case.

According to a U.S. Air Force official, flag folding scripts that are religious in nature can be used for retirement ceremonies. "I can't speak to the specific incident," Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokeswoman, told Fox News in 2016. "[But] Air Force personnel may use a flag folding ceremony script that is religious for retirement ceremonies."

Stefanek continued, "Since retirement ceremonies are personal in nature, the script preference for a flag folding ceremony is at the discretion of the individual being honored and represents the member's views, not those of the Air Force."

In a statement to Fox News, Roberson confirmed that it was his wish to have Rodriguez recite the speech at his retirement ceremony.

"I wanted the ceremony to reflect the American values I spent my career defending – respect for God, family, and country," Roberson said.

"I couldn’t believe what happened. I still can’t believe it. All I want now is for the Air Force to apologize for ruining this once in a lifetime moment but they refuse to do so," he said.

Cristina Corbin is a Fox News reporter based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @CristinaCorbin.