Avoiding anti-religious decision-making

Ken Blackwell is Senior Fellow for Human Rights and Constitutional Governance at Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Washington Times on December 9, 2018.

As we approach the New Year and an incoming Congress, it bears noting that in the past five years there have been several major legal victories supporting armed services personnel prosecuted for acting consistently with their religious beliefs about marriage. Going forward, military commanders must study these cases involving uniformed believers fighting to live out their faith.

The case studies show that it would behoove all commanders to avoid knee-jerk, anti-religious decision-making. It has no place in our armed forces, and public reversal of a wrongly-made decision is humiliating and, perhaps, career-threatening. But don’t take my word for it. Check the record.

Resolution of the most recent case came this summer. The non-profit law firm First Liberty Institute announced that its clients, Army Chaplain Scott Squires and his assistant at Fort Bragg, N.C., were cleared of “dereliction of duty” charges regarding an allegation of anti-LGBT discrimination. This exoneration came after the investigator had recommended Maj. Squires be disciplined for rescheduling a marriage-building retreat after a same-sex couple announced their intention to attend.

All chaplains belong to sponsoring denominations that espouse tenets of faith. Maj. Squires, a Southern Baptist, is affiliated with the North American Mission Board. The NAMB has stated unequivocally that its chaplains cannot participate in events that legitimate same-sex marriage. In this instance, Maj. Squires found another chaplain to take his place, but Maj. Squires was only cleared after a public campaign came to his defense. This incident should never have proceeded with charges given his beliefs and the NAMB’s tenets.

The second case involved Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Modder, a leader thought by his colleagues to be a “national asset.” In February 2015, his commander recommended that Chaplain Modder be “Detached for Cause” and involuntarily separated from the Navy after several sailors criticized the religious content of his counseling. Lt. Cmdr. Modder faced potentially career-ending consequences — including loss of his retirement benefits — for offering biblical counsel in a manner consistent with his sincerely held beliefs regarding faith, sexuality and marriage.

Lt. Cmdr. Modder’s counseling complied with the requirements of his endorser, the Assemblies of God. Before a final decision was rendered, the Navy removed Lt. Cmdr. Modder from his unit, isolated him at the base chapel, separated him from sailors and forbade him from ministering to the spiritual needs of his sailors. His situation became dire, despite considerable popular and congressional support for his cause.

As Lt. Cmdr. Modder’s case seemed on a certain path to litigation before a Board of Inquiry, the Navy announced that it had reversed course completely. On Sept. 3, 2015, Rear Adm. David F. Steindl, commander of Navy Personnel Command and deputy chief of Naval Personnel, rejected all claims against Chaplain Modder and restored him to full service.

A third case involved Col. Leland Bohannon, a highly decorated Air Force bomber pilot. Due to his religious beliefs about same-sex marriage, Col. Bohannon felt that he could not sign a certificate of spouse appreciation for a retiring same-sex couple. Upon the advice of his chaplain, Col. Bohannon had a superior officer — a two-star general — sign the spouse’s certificate.

Upon learning that Col. Bohannon did not sign the certificate, the retiring service member filed a formal Equal Opportunity complaint claiming unlawful discrimination based on sexual orientation. The Air Force investigated and unjustly found that the charge was substantiated because Col. Bohannon did not personally sign the document.

Col. Bohannon appealed, and non-military groups rushed to his defense in great number. Eventually, the secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson, personally intervened and reversed the judgment. This averted the loss of a highly significant U.S. military asset — Col. Bohannon himself. Secretary Wilson wisely recognized that the Air Force would suffer operationally if it did not set out a standard that allowed both sides to live together.

In sum, these cases demonstrate that no member of the armed forces should be compelled to choose between his or her religious beliefs and faithful uniformed service. If a same-sex couple can be accommodated by a service member willing to facilitate them, then a balance can be struck between the parties involved.