April 4, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – The U.S. Air Force has reversed course after initially suspending and denying a promotion for a colonel who refused to sign a “certificate of appreciation” for one of his airmen’s same-sex “marriage.”
In a letter sent to members of Congress on Monday, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson confirmed the Air Force is restoring the command of Colonel Leland B.H. Bohannon, the Military Times reported. Bohannon is commander of the Air Force Inspection Agency at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, and a distinguished serviceman of more than 20 years. He flew combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has received numerous commendations such as the Bronze Star, the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, and the Air Medal.
Wilson also affirmed that Bohannon “had the right to exercise his sincerely held religious beliefs and did not unlawfully discriminate when he declined to sign the certificate.”
Last fall, Bohannon’s command was revoked and his promotion to Brigadier General was canceled after he refused to sign a “certificate for spouse appreciation” for a retiring master sergeant under his command. Bohannon signed the certificate for the airman himself, but referred the spousal certificate to a two-star general who signed it instead.
Bohannon argued that signing the “optional, unofficial” spousal certificate would “signify his personal endorsement of the same-sex marriage” in violation of his religious convictions. He filed a religious accommodation request that was never acted upon, so Major General Sami D. Said agreed to sign the certificate in his place.
But despite Said’s rank giving his signature far greater prestige, the master sergeant filed an Equal Opportunity complaint against Bohannon, who was subsequently ruled to have engaged in “unlawful discrimination.”
Bohannon then contacted First Liberty Institute, a religious freedom legal organization that appealed the decision to the Air Force Review Boards Agency. First Liberty argued that there was no legal right to the certificate in question, that sexual orientation was not recognized under the relevant anti-discrimination law, that the Air Force had disregarded Bohannon’s religious rights, and that the master sergeant was not wronged because his “spouse” still received a signed certificate.
“Refusing to grant Col Bohannon’s request for religious accommodation violates DOD and Air Force regulations,” First Liberty general counsel Michael Berry warned the Air Force. “Worse, the adverse actions Col Bohannon has suffered as a result of free exercise violate the Constitution, federal law, and established DOD policy.”
Several lawmakers, including Senators Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida, Mike Lee of Utah, James Lankford of Oklahoma, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, also called on Wilson to reverse the decision.
Bohannon “should be applauded for finding an equitable solution that honored his retiring officer’s partner while allowing Col. Bohannon to stay true to his religious conviction that marriage is between one man and one woman,” their letter said. “The Air Force’s refusal to accept this compromise and its refusal to grant an accommodation — when doing so would cause no discernable harm — raises the question as to which circumstances, if any, would move the U.S. Air Force to defend the free exercise rights of its soldiers.”
Family Research Council president Tony Perkins said the FRC and the American Family Association also collected and delivered 77,024 to Secretary Wilson, calling for the Air Force to recognize Bohannon’s religious freedom.
In Wilson’s letter confirming the reversal, she also confirmed that the Air Force would “ensure Col. Bohannon’s records are corrected in accordance with the final agency decision.” Berry is pleased to see the Air Force restore Bohannon’s command but believes his career advancement should also resume.
“I think after that he is entitled to a review of his possible promotion to brigadier general,” Berry said, according to the Air Force Times.
Mikey Weinstein, founder of the atheist group Military Religious Freedom Foundation, blasted the reversal of Bohannon’s punishment as an “attempt to officially condone bigotry.” But he did not address the fact that a Major General signed the spousal certificate in Bohannon’s place.
First Liberty says the victory for religious liberty is encouraging but warns that there remains much work to do in the military.
“This is clear evidence that the Trump administration is helping to right the ship at the Pentagon,” First Liberty attorney Hiram Sasser told Fox News’ Todd Starnes. “However, we must remember that at every level of the government there are bureaucrats who actively resist President Trump’s efforts to preserve and protect religious freedom.”
The Air Force Times quoted Berry as saying that while this incident does not create a binding legal precedent for future cases, he hopes it encourages the military to create clearer guidelines to protect soldiers exercising their religion.