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Colonel won’t be disciplined over religious beliefs

Col. Leland Bohannon

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

The Air Force has reversed its decision to discipline a colonel stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base who refused to sign a certificate of appreciation for a subordinate’s same-sex spouse last year for religious reasons.

“The Air Force places a high value on the rights of its members to observe the tenets of their respective religions or to observe no religion at all,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson wrote in an April 2 letter to U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado’s 5th Congressional District.

Lamborn and other House members, including New Mexico’s Steve Pearce, sent Wilson a letter of support for Col. Leland Bohannon in December. A group of senators, including Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, sent a similar letter in November.

“All Americans have a Constitutional right to religious freedom and conscience protections,” Pearce said in an emailed statement. “Col. Bohannon was wrongly reprimanded for exercising his religious beliefs. I’m pleased to see the Air Force stand up to protect religious liberties of those who dedicate their life to defending our nation.”

Bohannon was serving as the commander of the Air Force Inspection Agency headquartered at Kirtland Air Force Base in May 2017 when he was asked to sign certificates for a retiring master sergeant, including a “certificate of spouse appreciation” for his same-sex spouse.

Bohannon refused, citing his Christian faith, but arranged for an off-base superior officer to sign the certificate in his place.

The spousal appreciation certificates are not legally required and are not official documents.

The master sergeant then filed a complaint with the Air Force Equal Opportunity Office alleging he was discriminated against due to his sexual orientation.

The complaint was ultimately substantiated and Bohannon was removed from command. A superior officer wrote a letter recommending against his promotion to brigadier general.

Bohannon, who is now stationed in Washington, D.C., appealed the decision and was represented by religious liberties group First Liberty Institute.

“I’m very happy for Col. Bohannon and his family,” said First Liberty attorney Mike Berry. “I think he’s just glad to put this behind him and move on with his career.”

Ashley Broadway-Mack, president of the American Military Partner Association, a nonprofit organization of LGBT military families and supporters, called the reversal “alarming.”

“At the end of the day, every service member and their spouse deserve to be treated equally with dignity and respect, especially by a commanding officer. Personal religious beliefs should never be used as an excuse to discriminate against a subordinate,” Broadway-Mack said in a statement. “This colonel’s action sent a dangerous message to the entire command that he disapproves of every same-sex spouse that supports their service member throughout their military career. That’s a severe failure of leadership.”

In her letter, Wilson said the director of the Air Force Review Boards Agency granted Bohannon’s appeal.

“The Director concluded that Col. 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,” she wrote.