Air Force Investigation Finds No Religious Discrimination

An Air Force investigation was initiated after SMSgt Philip Monk filed a complaint of religious discrimination, claiming he was relieved and reassigned earlier than planned after a conversation with his commanding officer, Maj Elisa Valenzuela.  The Air Force issued a press release about the investigation, saying the charges of religious discrimination were not substantiated:

The investigation, initiated Aug. 15 by Col. Mark Camerer, 37th Training Wing commander at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, found the claim unsubstantiated…

“The weight of the evidence shows that religion was never discussed between the two,” Camerer said in an Air Education and Training Command release.

“In the end, this is a case about command authority, good order and discipline, and civil rights — not religious freedoms,” he said.

Interestingly, no one ever publicly claimed “religion was…discussed between the two,” but it raises the question as to whether one must explicitly voice a religious belief for it to be actionable.  The investigation also made an interesting comment about the statements at the heart of the controversy [emphasis added]: 

“Based on his training as a first sergeant, Senior Master Sgt. Monk should have known that discriminatory remarks on the basis of sexual orientation are against Air Force Policy.

The statement seems odd, because Monk is not alleged to have made any such remarks, nor has his conduct with regard to such remarks been brought into question.  Another statement from Lackland used similar language:

“This incident was never about religious freedom, but about command authority and civil rights,” Lt. Col. Sean McKenna, an Air Education and Training Command spokesman, said in an email. “It was handled appropriately, with a commander counseling a military training instructor for comments deemed discriminatory in nature.

What comments did the Air Force declare “discriminatory”?  Here’s a reminder of what allegedly transpired (since no public information on what actually transpired has been released):

Monk said…the instructor[‘s] public comments compar[ed] the United States with the fall of the Roman Empire.

“He said in spite of our differences, we can’t let that happen to the United States,” Monk said. “He then used homosexual marriage as an example – saying that he didn’t believe in it – but it doesn’t matter because he was going to train them the same way.”

The Air Force reportedly called those words “discriminatory.”

The release also said the Air Force was “no longer” charging Monk with making false official statements — though the investigator concluded Monk did make false statements. Though not explicit, it seems Monk was investigated for remarks he made to the press about his relief and reassignment, but because they were not official statements, the investigation determined he did not violate the UCMJ.  Even so, the UCMJ specifically says that a belief that something is true — even if “erroneous” — is a defense, and Monk clearly believed his characterization of his reassignment was accurate.

The investigator continued:

[Monk] should have also known, while Air Force members do have the right to speech and religion, that right does not mean airmen can say whatever they want, whenever they want.

It’s difficult to analyze the comment without context, as the Air Force reportedly declined to release the report but did include that statement in the press release.  In isolation, the comment seems like a straw man: Publicly, neither Monk nor the Airman claimed a right to “say whatever they want, whenever they want.”  The were only two conversations in question — one between the Airman and trainees, the other between Monk and his commander — and both were in specific, legitimate contexts.  Why the Air Force scolded Monk on the irrelevant issue of “whatever, whenever” is unclear.

In the end, the report said only that Monk’s claims of religious discrimination were “unsubstantiated.”  Michael Weinstein — who took the unprecedented step of accepting an Air Force investigation at face value — took a more proactive view of the report, reading into it that the Air Force

debunked [SMSgt Monk] as an anti-gay bigot

So, in Weinstein’s world, not being the victim of religious discrimination makes one a bigot? Weinstein seems to have forgotten that some of his own “clients” have made claims that were “unsubstantiated.”

(As an aside, Weinstein continued his tradition of assigning religious labels, saying Monk was “the poster-child of the fundamentalist Christian Dominionist lobby.”  Weinstein provided no evidence to support his claim he knew Monk’s religious beliefs.)

There is no question Monk’s new assignment was moved up after the conversation with his commander, as Monk asserted — though to imply they were “altered” is probably not the right wording.  (The second set of orders was even signed the day immediately prior to the new effective date and immediately upon the arrival of Monk’s replacement, which was not the briefed plan.) Given that Monk never returned to that job, it does not seem an unreasonable conclusion that the move was linked to that conversation.  The Air Force seems to have concluded that even if that conversation was the impetus for the move, since neither party used religious references in the conversation, no religious discrimination took place.

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