A notable religious liberty violation

NICK EICHER, HOST: A decorated Air Force veteran in line for promotion declined to sign a certificate of appreciation. For that, the veteran’s superiors punished him.

Details in just a moment. 

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Now, we typically don’t cover every affront to religious liberty here. Frankly, there’s not enough time. But the case we’re about to explore is particularly notable.

Here to talk about it is lawyer Jeremy Dys with First Liberty. That’s an organization of lawyers devoted to defending religious liberty, and in this case, represented Air Force veteran, Colonel Leland Bohannon.

Jeremy, before we get to the specifics of Col. Bohannon’s case, let’s back up and lay the groundwork. How would you describe the overall status of religious freedom in the military these days?

JEREMY DYS, GUEST: Well, there has been an increase in the last, I don’t know, 8 or so years that has been an increasing hostility towards religion within the military service. And that’s a reflection of a broader cultural trend that we see within public schools, within houses of worship, in the public square. But because the military is such a microcosm of our society in general, I think we’re seeing an uptick in threats to the religious liberty of the men and women of our armed forces and that is certainly regrettable. Now, I do think that is beginning to change with the current administration and their commitment to trying to root out some of these problems and to kind of restore not only the pride in our military service but to preserve and protect religious freedom as well. And I’m hopeful that the Trump administration and those in the Pentagon committed to that will be able to do that in the near term.

OK, now, let’s talk about what happened to Colonel Leland Bohannon. Who is he?

DYS: Yeah, Colonel Bohannon has a long background, of course, in the military. He’s won the — several citations for bravery and has been deployed overseas as a bomb wing commander. He is in the Pentagon right now, and he’s just doing great things for our United States Air Force.

Sounds like an upstanding guy. What was the circumstance that led to him being suspended from the military?

DYS: Well, it’s kind of an odd situation in which — In the military, when someone retires, there’s been sort of this tradition that the commanding officer at the retirement will recognize the service of the spouse as well. It’s unofficial. It’s just a way of saying, “Thank you.” Think of it like providing a bouquet of flowers. It’s not required, it really isn’t official, but it’s a nice way of recognizing that they served together. In this case, Colonel Bohannon was asked to provide that letter of appreciation to a same-sex spouse. And doing so, he felt, publicly, would lead to a way of endorsing a behavior that as a Christian himself he couldn’t endorse. So rather than put anybody in an awkward position, or force himself to compromise his convictions — he sought out a two-star general to provide that letter of appreciation instead. That was provided, but before long, the gentleman that was retiring found out about it, complained about it, and Colonel Bohannon found himself on the wrong side of an investigation. And so we took on Colonel Bohannon’s case just to try to resolve this matter and say, “Look, you may believe about a lot of different things in life and especially on these kind of eternal issues, but let’s provide ways for accommodation to occur even within our military.”

And why wasn’t an accommodation made?

DYS: Well, The military has in the past provided accommodation or at least recognized that service members have the right to be able to hold their religious beliefs without compromise on a variety of things. And in this situation, when you have a two-star general who’s providing a letter rather than a lowly colonel to this thing, that should be a high honor. So the secretary of the Air Force got involved, Secretary Wilson, and she announced a decision that would protect the religious liberty of Colonel Bohannon and I think that’s just clear evidence that this administration, through its Secretary of the Air Force there, is helping to right the ship at the Pentagon.

Jeremy, how did it even get to the point where signing the equivalent of a greeting card nearly derailed a decades-long, distinguished military career?

DYS: Well, it doesn’t happen overnight and I think the restoration will take some time as well. But it’s actually pretty simple. When we’re willing to stand up and when we’re willing to talk to each other about the importance of religious liberty, to ask one another to convey to our next generation around the dinner table the importance of religious liberty, that’s how we strengthen religious liberty in this country. And if and when it comes to you and you find yourself in a situation of Colonel Bohannon your willingness to stand up and say, “Wait a minute, the Constitution protects my religious liberty here. Somebody please help me.” I think that goes a long way to preserving the religious liberty, our first freedom that is found in the First Amendment.

It’s a muscle that has to be exercised, in other words. Jeremy Dys with First Liberty. Thank you!

DYS: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

(Senior Airman Benjamin Gonsier/U.S. Air Force photo)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “A notable religious liberty violation

  1. Shayla Ashmore says:

    The outcome of this case is not clear. What happened to Col. Bohannon?

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