An Air Force colonel who refused to sign a certificate of appreciation for the same-sex spouse of a retiring master sergeant in his command claims he was wrongly disciplined for holding to his religious beliefs, according to areport Thursday by the Albuquerque Journal.
Following the May incident, the master sergeant filed an Equal Opportunity complaint alleging that Col. Leland Bohannon, then-commander of the Air Force Inspection Agency at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, unlawfully discriminated against him due to his sexual orientation. That complaint was substantiated.
Bohannon was relieved of command. Additionally, a letter sent by a superior officer recommended against Bohannon’s promotion to brigadier general, effectively ending his career.
On Aug. 31, his appeal was denied by Brig. Gen. Paul W. Tibbets IV, deputy commander of Air Force Global Strike Command and commander of Air Forces Strategic-Air, U.S. Strategic Command, at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana.
He is now being represented by attorney Mike Berry of First Liberty Institute, a religious liberties group, who has appealed to the Air Force Review Boards Agency to reverse the substantiated EO complaint and remove any unfavorable materials from Bohannon’s service record.
In coming to a decision about whether to sign the certificate of appreciation, Bohannon consulted with his command’s chaplain, who recommended he file a religious accommodation request to excuse him from signing the letter. But that letter came back undecided.
Bohannon then had the letter of appreciation signed by an off-base two-star officer.
In its appeal, First liberty notes that the “EO investigator concluded that Bohannon violated AFI 36-2706, the Air Force Equal Opportunity Program, and unlawfully discriminated against the master sergeant based on sexual orientation. The EO investigator acknowledged that Col. Bohannon sought a religious accommodation, but the investigator stated that even had the accommodation been granted, Col. Bohannon would nonetheless be guilty of unlawful discrimination.
“As a result of the substantiated finding, Lt. Gen. [Anthony] Rock, [Air Force inspector general], suspended Col. Bohannon from command, withheld his decoration, and submitted a letter to the Air Force Brigadier General promotion board — the rank for which Col. Bohannon is eligible — recommending that Col. Bohannon not be promoted.”
In his appeal, Berry notes that “there is no legal right to a spouse certificate of appreciation. AFI 36-3203, Service Retirements, paragraph 6.3, states that a spouse certificate ‘may be issued.’ … Moreover, the Instruction does not require the commander to personally sign a certificate, should one be issued.”
Berry also took aim at the investigating officer’s conclusion that even if Bohannon had received a religious accommodation he would still be guilty of unlawful discrimination.
“Such a position renders religious accommodations meaningless,” Berry wrote. “Religious accommodations exist to avoid placing service members in the religious and moral dilemma of having to violate their religious convictions in order to serve.”
First Liberty also argues that the Air Force does not provide adequate training to individuals faced with decisions that may conflict with their religious beliefs.
“There was no guidance for him to know how to navigate that,” Berry told the Journal. “… The accommodation should have been granted.”
Berry said he doesn’t know why Bohannon’s religious accommodation request was returned “without action,” as the only two options for such requests are typically approval or denial.
“The Air Force is aware of the issue, and is working it through the proper channels,” Air Force spokesman Maj. Ethan Stoker wrote in an email to the Journal.
In addition to the reversal of the decision against him, Bohannon is requesting that training be given to commanders on how they should deal with such situations in the future.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.