Air Force backs Colonel who refused signature for gay couple, cites religious freedom

Matt Saintsing
April 04, 2018 - 5:47 pm

U.S. Air Force Photo

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An Air Force Colonel exercised his religious beliefs when he refused to sign a certificate of appreciation for the same-sex spouse of an airman under his command, the service has concluded.

Col. Leland Bohannon, a Christian, was suspended from command last year when he declined to sign a “certificate of spouse appreciation” for a retiring master sergeant’s spouse. Instead, he had a two-star general sign it.

The Air Force previously ruled that the incident was discrimination and Bohannon was subsequently passed up for promotion to brigadier general.

But, Bohannon’s fortune was reversed this week when Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson wrote in a letter that the director of the Air Force Review Boards Agency granted Bohannon his appeal on the case.

“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 said in a statement.

“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.”

Wilson’s letter highlighted that the Air Force has a duty to treat every airman with dignity and respect, and that discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, and sexual orientation. A duty that was met “by having a more senior officer sign the certificate,” wrote Wilson.

At its core, this case is about religious freedom, says First Liberty Institute, a non-profit group that fights for religious protections that also represented Bohannon.

“In this case, the rights of Col. Leland Bohannon his rights were infringed upon and violated here,” says Mike Berry, deputy general counsel for First Liberty Institute.

“For Col. Bohannon, marriage is defined as one man and one woman and to put his official signature to a document would be, in effect, the endorsement of a union that goes against his religious beliefs and teaching,” said Berry

But, not everyone shares that view. OutServe-SLDN, an advocacy organization for LGBT troops and veterans views Bohannon’s refusal as a clear act of prejudice.  

“This was certainly a case of discrimination,” says Andy Blevins, director of law and policy at OutServe-SLDN.

A fact, Blevins says, comes directly from a Defense Department directive that states requests for religious accommodation will be approved if the action doesn’t “adversely affect mission accomplishment, including military readiness, unit cohesion, good order, and discipline.”

“It’s clear that’s what has happened here,” adds Blevins.

Bohannon’s refusal to sign the document solely on the basis of the couple’s sexual orientation is blatant discrimination, says Blevins.

“As veterans, we know that it’s not just the service member that’s serving their country, it’s their families as well,” he continues. “That document serves as an affirmation of that familial support that he has been giving his country.”

 “The real question here is would (Bohannon) have done this to a heterosexual couple?,” Blevins asks.