A 19-year Air Force veteran says he was relieved of duties at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, in a dispute with his commanding officer over same-sex marriage.
The case of the senior master sergeant is exactly what some lawmakers are trying to prevent by seeking changes in military policies on diversity, tolerance and religious freedom that would allow service members with strong religious or moral objections to homosexuality to speak their minds without fear of reprisal.
Senior Master Sgt. Phillip Monk, assigned to the 37th Training Wing, said Friday he was relieved July 26 of his duties as first sergeant of a training squadron and forced to take leave because he disagreed with his commanding officer’s position on gay marriage. He says his commander is openly lesbian.
A spokeswoman for the wing, Collen McGee, said Monk was “not removed from duty.”
The training squadron commander who Monk claims fired him does not intend to issue a statement, McGee said.
Monk, an evangelical Christian, said the issue came up when he was advising his commander about a situation involving a staff sergeant who had expressed opposition to homosexuality on religious grounds — an opinion shared with trainees that might be a violation of an Air Force policy barring the use of a position of authority to promote personal religious beliefs.
Monk said he wanted the incident to be treated as a learning experience, but the commander wanted to do more. Monk said this led to a discussion in which the commander pressed him into saying he also had a moral objection to gay marriage.
Monk said it was a “very, very contentious” discussion, with the commander pressing him to agree that opposition to gay marriage was an act of discrimination. Monk said he told her: “I cannot answer your question because of my convictions.”
In the end, Monk said the staff sergeant received a letter of counseling, an official notice of infraction. Monk did not identify the staff sergeant.
Monk said he was subsequently relieved of his duties at the unit, and had to request permission to return in order to collect personal items. “I was relieved of my position because I do not agree with my commander’s position on gay marriage,” he said.
He acknowledged that he was due for a reassignment, but the dispute with the commander led to his being abruptly removed from a leadership position and leaves open a question about whether he will receive a Meritorious Service Medal for which his commande had recommended him in late June.
Not receiving the medal could hurt his career, Monk said, because it would “send a message to whomever is reviewing” his military records.
Monk is now assigned to the 59th Medical Wing at Lackland, a position he said is commensurate with his rank and experience.
He is receiving legal advice from the Liberty Institute, a nonprofit legal group that concentrates on religious freedom issues. Attorney Mike Berry, who is advising Monk, said it is not clear if a lawsuit will be filed. “We are keeping our options open,” Berry said.
Monk’s treatment was a “drastic departure from the norm,” Berry said, adding it is highly unusual for someone “to be reassigned in hours.”
Air Force spokeswoman McGee said the move was not unusual. “For several months, he’s been scheduled to rotate out of his unit to another unit at Lackland. Once his replacement began duty, the individual moved to his new unit.”
In a statement, Liberty Institute litigation director Hiram Sasser described Monk as “a guy who wants to have his religious liberty and serve in the military. He should not have to believe in gay marriage in order to serve.”
Last year, Congress approved so-called “rights of conscience” for military members, allowing them to express their personal beliefs without fear of punishment. The law, section 533 of Public Law 112-239, says the military must accommodate “conscience, moral principles or religious beliefs of the member and, so far as practicable, may not use such beliefs as the basis for any adverse personnel action.”
It defines adverse actions as discrimination in or denial of promotion, schooling, training or assignment.
However, the law does allow disciplinary action for actions or speech that threaten good order and discipline.
Air Force policy, similar to that of the other services, holds that the government is neutral on religion. Air Force Instruction 1-1, a pocket guide to Air Force standards and culture, requires military leaders, officer and enlisted, to “avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion.”
The policy warns leaders that to promote their personal religious beliefs “may cause members to doubt their impartiality and objectivity.”
The Air Force policy further states: “All airmen are able to choose to practice their particular religion, or subscribe to no religious belief at all. You should confidently practice your own beliefs while respecting others whose viewpoints differ from your own.”
And, it cautions, “your right to practice your religious beliefs does not excuse you from complying with directives, instructions and lawful orders.”
The pending House and Senate versions of the 2014 defense authorization bill would expand the conscience rights. The Senate version would allow service members to express personal opinions unless the expression has an adverse impact on readiness, unit cohesion or good order and discipline. The House version allows expression of views unless it creates “actual harm,” not just the possibility of harm.
The Obama administration opposes the House provision but has not yet commented on the Senate proposal. In a statement of administration policy, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget says the House proposal goes too far.
“By limiting the discretion of commanders to address potentially problematic speech and actions within their units, this provision would have a significant adverse effect on good order, discipline, morale, and mission accomplishment,” the policy statement says.