Written by Don Byrd

A couple of news items worth sharing came across my screen today that each describe disputes over religious expression at U.S. military functions honoring retiring officers. 

First, a lawsuit filed early this week alleges that the Air Force violated the civil rights – including the Free Exercise rights – of a retired officer in 2016 by preventing him from reading a script with religious references during the folding of the American flag at another officer’s retirement ceremony. The complaint states that retired Air Force Senior Master Sergeant Oscar Rodriguez, Jr. was “forcibly removed” from the ceremony when it became clear that he intended to deliver the script featuring religious themes, rather than the script prescribed by Air Force regulations. (According to Stars and Stripes, the Air Force relaxed those rules soon after, allowing for speeches with religious themes at retirement ceremonies.)

Meanwhile, in another case, the Air Force Review Boards Agency reversed on appeal disciplinary action taken against Col. Leland Bohannon for refusing to sign a certificate of appreciation for the same-sex spouse of a retiring airman under his command. Stars and Stripes reports:

Bohannon… chose not to sign the “optional, unofficial” spouse appreciation certificate “similar to a bouquet of flowers,” the appeal letter said. The colonel believed that doing so would “signify his personal endorsement of the same-sex marriage,” which conflicted with his religious beliefs, First Liberty said.

Bohannon sought a religious accommodation that would excuse him from signing the letter, the institute said. That request was later returned “without action.” In the meantime, however, a two-star general agreed to sign the letter in Bohannon’s place.

Following an equal opportunity complaint, the Air Force removed Bohannon from command and from consideration for promotion. But on appeal the Board ruled that by having another officer sign the certificate, Bohannon had met his duty not to discriminate. A letter from Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson to members of Congress who had intervened on behalf of the Colonel reportedly confirmed that Bohannon “had the right to exercise his sincerely held religious beliefs and did not unlawfully discriminate when he declined to sign the certificate.”

Other than both occurring at retirement ceremonies, these disputes have little in common. But they demonstrate that our armed services are not immune from many of the arguments dividing the rest of the country when it comes to the rights of individuals to act or refrain from acting in accordance with their sincere religious beliefs while participating in official events.