An Air Force officer and former evangelical Christian chaplain was discriminated against both when he converted to Orthodox Judaism and when his recent application to become a Jewish chaplain was rejected, according to the religious freedom organization now representing him.
Capt. Jeff Montanari, a former enlisted airman, became an officer and a chaplain in the Air Force Reserve in 2010, endorsed by the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. He was assigned to March Air Reserve Base in California.
In 2012, he transferred to a position in the California Air National Guard, and was subsequently also appointed as a full-time Air Guard Technician from mid-2013 through 2015. In 2014, he also began concurrently serving as a chaplain in the Civil Air Patrol.
Montanari made it a focal point of his ministry to serve the Jewish community at March, according to First Liberty Institute, a law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom, which is now representing him. He provided the first Messianic Jewish Seder presentation in support of the Jewish high holy day of Passover and helped Jewish men and women at the base with their kosher dietary requests and other requests for religious accommodation.
Those experiences, coupled with his discovery of his own Jewish lineage, led Montanari to begin seriously considering a conversion to Orthodox Judaism,
But that decision allegedly came at a high cost.
Superiors allegedly demeaned his character, refused to grant him a religious accommodation, segregated him from the rest of the chaplain staff, and excluded him from chaplain meetings, according to a statement from his lawyers. They effectively drove him out of the Air Force because of his change in religious affiliation, his lawyers argue.
“At the heart of religious liberty is the right to follow the faith of one’s choice,” said Stephanie Taub, senior counsel at First Liberty. “These Air Force officials have no legitimate or lawful reason to prevent Chaplain Montanari from continuing to serve his country as a chaplain, as he did with distinction for several years.”
Montanari and his attorneys believe the rejection was founded in discrimination. First Liberty sent a letter this week to Air Force officials demanding that they immediately reinstate their client to the chaplaincy.
Montanari alleges that, beginning in 2015, he “faced severe hostility from his superiors” when he went public with his intention to convert. One fellow chaplain told Montanari that he could no longer work with him because of his change in religious beliefs, according to the letter sent by First Liberty.
Specifically, the fellow chaplain said Montanari “did not profess Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior,” and therefore they were no longer “equally yoked,” according to the letter.
Based on incidents like this, Montanari submitted an Inspector General and a Military Equal Opportunity complaint explaining that the other chaplain was pressuring him to adhere to the Christian religion, rather than pursue his growing faith in Judaism.
Over a period of several months in the chaplain’s office, Montanari allegedly was subject to further harassment and discrimination by his superiors.
Also during 2015, he was assigned to a position with the California Air National Guard in the Office of the Inspector General at March AFB, and put in paperwork to switch from chaplain to line officer. He also began the process to convert.
He subsequently attended the Air Force Inspector General Training Course at Scott Air Force Base, Ill. But upon his return, a new wing vice commander ordered him to return to the chaplaincy. When Montanari protested that, because of his changed beliefs, he could no longer work as a Christian chaplain in good faith, he was rebuffed.
Because of these substantial burdens on his religious beliefs and his wing vice commander’s refusal to provide a religious accommodation, Montanari decided he could not renew his commission at the end of 2015.
It was after separating from the military, and completing his studies to convert to Orthodox Judaism, that Montanari decided he wanted to re-apply to the military chaplaincy to serve the needs of Jewish airmen.
Unbeknownst to Montanari, Foursquare had rescinded its chaplain endorsement in January 2016. Although the law requires the Air Force to immediately notify chaplains in writing, giving them a chance to appeal or switch endorsing agencies, Montanari wasn’t told until this year, according to First Liberty.
“This failure made it impossible for Chaplain Montanari to properly change ecclesiastical endorsers, seek an alternate position, or seek a waiver within the 10-day time frame required by the Air Force or the 90-day time frame required by the Civil Air Patrol,” according to First Liberty.
So, when he moved to re-apply, he found out he was essentially starting from scratch.
Montanari alleges that when he was interviewed, he faced hostile questioning about his decision to convert.
“Despite a pressing need for Jewish chaplains, the Air Force denied his application with no explanation,” First Liberty said in their statement.
The Civil Air Patrol initially approved his application, then rescinded that approval several days later.
In the letter to Air Force officials, First Liberty demanded that Montanari’s applications to become a chaplain in the Air Force Reserve and the Civil Air Patrol be approved, that the Air Force issue an apology and that Montanari be given a guarantee that there will be no further discrimination or hostility in the workplace.
It’s demanding a response no later than May 21.
In a statement, the Civil Air Patrol said it “strongly disagrees” with the allegation from First Liberty that Montanari was denied reinstatement as a chaplain because of his conversion from evangelical Christianity to Torah Judaism.
“The denial of his request for CAP chaplaincy was based on other factors and not related to either his conversion to Judaism or his new endorsement for chaplaincy from Rabbi F.J. Todd,” the Civil Air Patrol said in its statement.
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.