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In political reversal, Air Force allows for anti-gay discrimination

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said the decision concerned resolving "competing interests."

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. CREDIT: Douglas Graham/Roll Call via Getty Images
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. CREDIT: Douglas Graham/Roll Call via Getty Images

The Air Force has reversed a ruling against a colonel who refused to recognize the same-sex spouse of a retiring master sergeant. According to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, allowing for the discrimination was “an example of a situation in which protected, and potentially competing, interests must be carefully examined and resolved.”

It’s incredibly uncommon for a secretary to overrule such a decision in this fashion, and there is significant evidence that it was largely a political decision.

The situation concerned Colonel Leland Bohannon, who was handling the paperwork for a retiring master sergeant in his command. Though Bohannon had no problem signing most of the forms, he refused to sign a certificate of appreciation for the sergeant’s husband. “It is customary to present the member’s spouse with a certificate of appreciation for the support and sacrifice made during the member’s career,” the Air Force’s guidance states. “The office responsible for preparing the member’s certificate also prepares the certificate for the spouse.”

Bohannon claimed that signing the certificate would “signify his personal endorsement of the same-sex marriage,” so he sought a religious accommodation to excuse him from signing it. That request, however, was not considered. A two-star general signed the certificate in Bohannon’s place.

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Upon learning that his own commanding officer refused to sign a certificate thanking his husband, the retiring master sergeant filed a complaint alleging unlawful discrimination. The Air Force agreed, suspending Bohannon from his position and halting consideration of his promotion to brigadier general.

The First Liberty Institute, an anti-LGBTQ legal organization, appealed on Bohannon’s behalf in October. As part of that effort, First Liberty recruited several lawmakers and organizations to write to Wilson asking her to intervene and overturn the decision. Among the letters sent to Wilson was a letter from eight Republican senators, including Ted Cruz (R-TX), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and James Inhofe (R-OK). Another letter, spearheaded by the Family Research Council (FRC), an anti-LGBTQ hate group, was signed by a who’s-who of organizations and individuals that advocate against LGBTQ equality.

Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler also wrote her own letter to Wilson, echoing the same arguments First Liberty made in its appeal. As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, she has a long history of trying to impose an anti-LGBTQ agenda on the military through amendments to defense spending bills. This has included attempts to keep same-sex marriage banned in the military and most recently, a legislative ban on transgender service that ultimately failed.

First Liberty and its surrogates argued that Bohannon’s “religious freedom” should justify his discrimination. They also downplayed the significance of the certificate and even argued that because it was denied to his spouse and not to him directly, the master sergeant didn’t have standing to claim discrimination. This is absurd, of course, because if other members of the unit received certificates of appreciation for their spouses signed by their commanding officers and he didn’t, it’s clearly disparate treatment.

But Wilson was sympathetic to Bohannon’s position. That’s unsurprising, given her own long history of anti-LGBTQ advocacy. Wilson once said, for example, that when it comes to homosexuality, “There are things I’m willing to tolerate that I’m not willing to approve of.” As a member of Congress, she repeatedly voted against hate crimes protections for the LGBTQ community, vocally opposed marriage equality, and even downplayed the impact of anti-gay bullying.

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First Liberty shared news of its victory by publishing a letter Wilson wrote back to Hartzler announcing that the Director of the Air Force Review Boards Agency had granted Bohannon’s appeal. “The Director concluded that Colonel 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 explained.

But FRC credited Wilson herself for making the decision. The hate group’s spokesperson, Retired Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin, even noted how uncommon it is for a secretary like Wilson to overturn such a ruling. “For an Air Force Secretary to overrule an inspector general is quite rare and sends a message that the religious freedoms of service members will be respected and protected,” he said in a statement. “We applaud the Air Force Secretary for acting on President Trump’s pledge to move the military away from Obama-era political correctness and advance policies that keep our military strong.”

First Liberty likewise credited Wilson directly. Hiram Sasser, general counsel for the organization, said in a statement, “We are very pleased that Secretary Wilson protected the religious liberty of Col. Bohannon. This is clear evidence that the Trump administration is helping to right the ship at the Pentagon.”

LGBTQ military groups were quick to decry the decision. Ashley Broadway-Mack, president of the American Military Partners Association, told the Washington Blade that the reversal was alarming. “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,” she said. OutServe-SLDN’s Andy Blevins likewise called on military leaders to “learn to divorce their ignorance and prejudice from their leadership.”

When President Trump first nominated Wilson for the position, the Palm Center’s Aaron Belkin said that her selection raised “serious concerns about whether President Donald Trump can be counted on to honor his promise to treat LGBT Americans equally and to provide the armed forces with the best talent to defend this nation.”

It seems LGBTQ people were right to be concerned.