The Air Force has exonerated a colonel who said his religious beliefs prevented him from signing certificate of spouse appreciation for a retiring master sergeant’s same-sex spouse.
Col. Leland Bohannon was suspended after he had a higher-ranking officer sign the certificate in his stead, but he successfully appealed to the Director of the Air Force Review Boards Agency, the Air Force said in a statement.
“The Air Force concluded that Colonel Bohannon 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,” the Air Force statement says.
“The Air Force has a duty to treat people fairly and without discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, or sexual orientation and met that duty by having a more senior officer sign the certificate.”
Bohannon’s records will now be updated to reflect his successful appeal, the statement says. The Air Force declined to respond when Task & Purpose asked if the service condones Bohannon’s religious beliefs on gays and lesbians.
The colonel had the support of lawmakers such as Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., who wrote Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson in November to argue that the service’s protections for airmen based on their sexual orientation are against the law.
“Congress and the courts have rejected the notion that ‘sex’ includes ‘sexual orientation,’” Hartzler wrote. “The Air Force does not have the liberty to define new legal protections and this should certainly not constitute the grounds to punish airmen.”
The Air Force should have granted Bohannon a religious accommodation because the certificate “effectively had zero impact to the military member and therefore no adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, good order, discipline, or health and safety,” Hartzler wrote.
Religious freedom is at the heart of the case, said Mike Berry, an attorney with the First Liberty Institute, who represented Bohannon. The institute is a self-described advocate for First Amendment religious protections.
Berry said the First Liberty Institute takes no position on whether gay and lesbian service members have the right to be married. In this case, Bohannon accommodated the master sergeant by having a two-star general sign the certificate, but the Air Force did not respond in kind, he said.
“There is a narrow religious liberty issue in this case, and that’s what we sought to address,” Berry told Task & Purpose. “A commander – or really any service member – who dons the uniform of the United States need not – and should never – be required to forfeit their constitutional rights, simply by virtue of being in the military.”
Berry said he did not argue that Bohannon’s First Amendment rights outweighed the Air Force’s instruction protecting airmen from discrimination based on sexual orientation. In this case, the certificate was for the master sergeant’s spouse, not the airman.
“Where do we draw the line between a service member’s religious freedom and other rights – I think that’s a question for the courts to decide,” Berry said. “The Constitution, Supreme Court case law and Air Force regulations all say that what happened to Col. Bohannon was wrong, that his religious rights should have been protected.”
However, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian troops and veterans has expressed its dismay at the Air Force’s decision to exonerate Bohannon.
“The purported argument that a leader is being discriminated against because we refuse to let them discriminate is both trite and detestable,” said Andy Blevins, director of law and policy for OutServe-SLDN. “It has been continually affirmed that the right to religious freedom within our military ranks stops when it begins to diminish unit cohesion and morale.
“In this instance,” he added, “that attenuation is very clear.”