WASHINGTON — Following receipt of an appeal from a religious liberties organization, as well as supportive correspondence from Congress, the secretary of the Air Force has announced the reversal of adverse actions against a Christian colonel who was punished for declining to sign an optional document that would have affirmed an airman’s same-sex “marriage.”
The colonel “had the right to exercise his sincerely held religious beliefs and did not unlawfully discriminate when he declined to sign the certificate of appreciation for the same-sex spouse of an airman in his command,” Secretary Heather Wilson wrote in a letter to Congress on Monday.
“The Air Force places a high value on the rights of its members to observe the tenets of their respective religions or to observe no religion at all,” she said, outlining that the Air Force believes the colonel did his duty by having a superior handle the matter in his place.
Wilson advised that the Air Force Review Boards Agency granted the colonel’s appeal and will adjust his records accordingly.
As previously reported, Col. Leland Bohannon, who serves at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, found himself in a predicament last May when he was handed a number of awards and certificates to sign for a master sergeant’s retirement ceremony. Among the certificates was a “certificate of spouse appreciation,” which is an optional document of recognition.
Because the master sergeant is in a homosexual relationship, Bohannon did not feel as a Christian that he should sign the certificate, as it would be a gesture of affirmation. He signed all of the other awards and certificates, and requested a religious accommodation from his superior for the spouse appreciation certificate.
The request was returned six weeks later “without action,” and in the meantime, Maj. Gen. Sami Said offered to sign the certificate instead. Bohannon agreed.
However, when the master sergeant discovered that Bohannon did not personally sign the spouse appreciation certificate, he filed an Equal Opportunity complaint, claiming that Bohannan discriminated against him.
Following an investigation, it was determined by Brig. Gen. Paul Tibbets in August that even though he sought a religious accommodation, Bohannon was guilty of violating Air Force regulations by discriminating on the basis of “sexual orientation.”
As a result of the findings of an Equal Opportunity investigator, Lt. Gen. Anthony Rock suspended Bohannon from his command position, withheld decoration and submitted a letter recommending that Bohannon not receive the brigadier general promotion for which he is eligible.
Bohannan consequently obtained legal representation from the Texas-based First Liberty Institute, which filed an appeal of the determination.
“[T]here is no requirement that a commander issue a spouse certificate. Moreover, the instruction does not require the commander to personally sign a certificate, should one be issued,” the appeal letter, written by attorney Michael Berry, read. “Yet the MSgt’s spouse nevertheless received a signed spouse certificate bearing the signature of a two-star general, far superior than one signed by Col. Bohannon.”
“In essence, the MSgt’s complaint is that the person of his choosing did not sign the certificate,” it notes, “even though the certificate presented was in fact superior as a result of Col. Bohannon’s efforts to balance his sincerely-held religious beliefs with the need to serve all airmen regardless of their beliefs.”
Members of Congress also submitted letters to Secretary Wilson, asking that the decision be reversed.
“[T]he incident with Col. Bohannon suggests the Air Force is screening the morals of commanders and giving them a choice to either hide their moral convictions, not act upon them, or not apply for command in the first place,” a letter from Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., read.
“The Air Force owes it to [Bohannon] to see that justice is restored, along with his good name,” also read a letter from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tx., and co-signed by seven other senators. “They should not ask him and other airmen to risk their lives only to be denied at home the very rights they championed and bled for abroad.”
The Air Force will now restore Bohannon’s record and remove any proposed punishments. His attorneys with First Liberty Institute said in a statement that the organization “hopes that this will lead to increased clarity for commanders responsible for protecting the religious liberty of all service members.”