Report: Retired SNCO Not Tossed from Ceremony over Religion

oscarThe Air Force Inspector General released its report (PDF here) on the incident involving retired USAF SMSgt Oscar Rodriguez in April. Rodriguez was invited to the retirement of fellow SNCO Chuck Roberson to give a narration during the flag-folding. When he rose to do so, several uniformed SNCOs physically through Rodriguez out of the building.

The IG was apparently tasked by none other than the Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James (she responding to a demand by Senator John McCain) to conduct the investigation — though they were apparently only tasked to investigate the “facts and circumstances”, not any specific allegation:

The 23 Jun 16 SAF/IG tasking order specifically directs the Investigation Office to, “…conduct an inquiry into the facts and circumstances surrounding the event; the governing laws, regulations, and policies and how they were applied.”

The IG ultimately concluded the decision to eject Rodriguez from the ceremony was not based on the religious content of his script. Their reasoning isn’t entirely logical, however. For example, the IG said [emphasis added]:

No sources or personnel involved appear to have reported the removal of Mr. Rodriguez as religious-based prior to 20 Jun 16.

That, of course, is patently false.

More than two months prior to that date, God and Country reported quite plainly that a “Retired Airman [was] Thrown Out of Ceremony Because of Religion.” This was based on two things: An official Air Force Reserve statement, as quoted by Fox News, responded to this incident by making a point of saying the Air Force “respects…religious expression.” As noted at the time, the Air Force was one of the first to note religion did have something to do with the incident. A John Q. Public blog subsequently noted that same comment, concluding the Air Force, too, was trying to address the issue as it might relate to religious expression.

One of the witnesses investigated by the IG (and quoted in the report) indicated religion was the basis for the difference between the official and unofficial script — but the IG dismissed this as mere academic distinction, not motivation. Based on that same information, the officiating officer of the ceremony came to the same conclusion: religion was the discriminating factor with regard to the script and the ultimate driver behind the ejection.

Further, the IG said because a chaplain was present and prayed in Jesus’ name, there could be no logical reason that religion would have been restricted later in the ceremony. That’s nonsensical. The incident had nothing to do with a chaplain’s prayer. The fact that a chaplain prayed unmolested while two witnesses claimed a civilian was tossed out because his script mentioned God strengthens the claim that, with respect to Rodriguez, religion was an issue.

While the IG implied it was giving deference to the legal inquiry with regard to the alleged assault, the IG also attempted to say the actions by the commander, LtCol Michael Sovitsky, were predicated on “good order and discipline.” Oddly, the report clearly indicates Sovitsky’s motivation was personal, not official, and apparently undocumented. In this case, “good order and discipline” appears to be an afterthought to otherwise indefensible conduct on the part of the commander.

The underlying premise, of course, is that SMSgt Rodriguez was using an unofficial script. The Air Force explicitly stated in 2005 that it made a new, official script specifically to restrict Airmen from referencing religion during the flag folding ceremony.  Witnesses at the ceremony, including one of the people involved in the “planning” against Rodriguez, acknowledged this as root of the motivation for kicking Rodriguez out.

The IG didn’t do a very good job, it seems, and retired LtCol Tony Carr said as much over at John Q. Public. He noted the IG report was vetted through leadership — a highly unusual and questionably ethical practice — and he drew the same conclusions as above [emphasis added]:

The report takes great pains to reach the conclusion that Rodriguez wasn’t removed from the ceremony to restrict his religious expression. This is not supported by the report’s own interviews, which paint a muddled picture on this account.

It’s clear from the interviews that Rodriguez’s intent to read a script with Christian intonations was controversial, and that this controversy had something to do with what eventually occurred. Put this together with the fact that the Air Force changed the instruction attempting to restrict religious speech at retirement tributes, and it’s at least as likely that the opposite of what Bartlett concludes is true.

The IG did not acquit itself well with this investigation.

The good news in this incident is the Air Force rescinded the restriction on scripts used during flag folding ceremonies. It is regrettable that the Air Force had to embarrass itself and one of its retired Airmen to realize it was wrong to have such a restriction.

That change naturally drew the ire of Michael “Mikey” Weinstein, who claims that not banning military religious freedom “strangle[s] the Constitution.” That makes complete sense to any deranged individual with a severe persecution complex.

As an aside, it was interesting to see that Mikey Weinstein was also mentioned in the IG report, with IG repeating what has been said here many times about Weinstein and Chris Rodda’s attacks on religious liberty [emphasis added]:

It should be noted that some facts cited in Mr. Weinstein’s article are not supported by the evidence, such as Mr. Rodriguez being “banned” from the installation. This Inquiry found no evidence that Mr. Rodriguez had ever been banned from the installation, nor any evidence that Mr. Rodriquez is currently banned from any military installation.

The IG just called you a liar, Mikey.

Also at the Stars and Stripes, the Air Force Times, and