Air Force Chaplain Montanari Converts to Judaism, Claims Discrimination

In an unusual case that will probably generate support and criticism from all sides, former Air Force Chaplain (Capt) Jeffrey Montanari has alleged that after he converted from Christianity to Judaism (as a chaplain) he faced discrimination and mistreatment, and that he was ultimately denied a position as a Jewish chaplain as a result.

Chaplain Montanari is now represented by First Liberty in a scenario likely making critics of “fundamentalist Christianity” heads explode. As reported in the Air Force Times [emphasis added]:

Montanari…became an officer and a chaplain in the Air Force Reserve in 2010, endorsed by the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel…

In 2012, he transferred to a position in the California Air National Guard…

[His experiences with the local Jewish community], coupled with his discovery of his own Jewish lineage, led Montanari to begin seriously considering a conversion to Orthodox Judaism.

But that decision allegedly came at a high cost.

Superiors allegedly demeaned his character, refused to grant him a religious accommodation, segregated him from the rest of the chaplain staff, and excluded him from chaplain meetings, according to a statement from his lawyers. They effectively drove him out of the Air Force because of his change in religious affiliation, his lawyers argue.

At this point, Michael “Mikey” Weinstein would demand courts-martial over general allegations that anti-Semitic evangelical Christians were trying to take over the world.

By contrast, in a letter (PDF) to the Air Force, First Liberty cites specific names and incidents to bolster their case of improper treatment — including some incidents reportedly already substantiated by the Air Force. For example [emphasis added]:

When Chaplain Montanari expressed concerns over his religious conflict, [Vice Wing Commander] Col. Keith Ward responded, “God told me that you are not the person for the [Indefinite Inspector General] job, and I am at peace with that.” Col. Ward later admitted that the choice of words he used was not optimal. A  superior officer counseled Col. Ward for his statement to Chaplain Montanari.

So it is clear there was some insensitivity — or outright hostility — toward Montanari. (Col Ward was apparently elevated to Wing Commander not long thereafter.)

Unfortunately, the incident gets messy after that.

First, no clarity is given on why Montanari went to IG training but was subsequently ordered back into the chaplaincy. This is not only a seeming waste of the Guard’s time and money, it is also obviously in conflict with Montanari’s then-changing faith.  (Chaplain Montanari had been sent to IG training by the previous Vice Wing CC, Col Douglas Weskamp.  The new CC, Col Keith “LJB” Ward, opted not to use him in that role.)

Generally speaking, however, a chaplain’s crisis of faith is a matter between him and his endorser, not him and the military. Officially, the Air Force expected Chaplain Montanari to continue to fulfill his duties consistent with the requirements of his sending ecclesiastical endorser. In that way, the Air Force isn’t required to “evaluate” the chaplain’s faith.  That’s why there are endorsing agencies to begin with. If Chaplain Montanari was unable to meet the requirements of his endorser, that’s another, and slightly more complicated, issue.  While sensitivity and respect are warranted, that endorser issue ultimately falls on him, not generally the Air Force.

Further, a fellow chaplain is specifically quoted as refusing to work with Montanari because of his rejection of Jesus Christ as the Messiah. On the surface, this seems immediate cause in Montanari’s favor — but there is some important context. At that time, Capt Montanari was still officially serving as a Christian chaplain — yet one who simultaneously denied the Christian faith.

Montanari’s fellow chaplains were then placed in an awkward position: Did they treat him as a Christian chaplain? A Jewish chaplain (unrecognized by the Air Force) wearing a Christian cross? The fellow chaplains should not have mistreated Chaplain Montanari nor shown him disrespect because of his faith. However, in a religious context, it would not be unreasonable for a Christian chaplain to refuse to work with Montanari if, for example, he was expected to perform Christian duties while actively denying the Christian faith.

In fairness, it is a situation that was “fair” to none of the parties involved, and one brought about because a commander chose to put an IG-trained officer back into a chaplain position, and a chaplain’s decision not to address his changing faith with his endorser.

In addition, while Montanari had requested a transfer to a non-chaplain position, the Guard was not obligated to fulfill that request (though, again, it seem ridiculous to pay to train him as an IG and then not use him). It is possible, though not stated, that Chaplain Montanari had two choices: continue in the position for which he had originally been hired (that is, a Christian chaplain billet), or resign his commission.

Montanari served in the chaplaincy position for only a few months more, and he indicated he essentially felt forced to separate from the Air Force in late 2015. After completing a long conversion to Judaism, he applied for a chaplaincy position again in November 2017 — predicated upon a change of endorsing agency from Christian (Foursquare) to Judaism (Pirchei Shoshanim).

The problem is the Foursquare endorsing agency had withdrawn its ecclesiastical endorsement not long after he separated two years prior. Since he now had no endorsing agency, he couldn’t simply change it, meaning he had to re-initiate his application as a “new” chaplain. He did so — and he was rejected.

Montanari now asserts that, consistent with the regulations, he should have been told he had lost his endorsement, and that would have given him the opportunity to seek a new endorser and maintain his ecclesiastical status (making his return as a chaplain easier). However, there’s a wrinkle in that argument. As cited by First Liberty, the regulations say (DoDI 1304.28)

If a chaplain…has ecclesiastical endorsement to serve as a chaplain withdrawn…Processing for separation…shall be initiated immediately…

When a separation action is initiated under this Instruction, the chaplain shall be notified in writing…[He shall also be notified of his] right to consult with military counsel or with civilian counsel obtained at no expense to the Government, and to submit statements in response to the notice…

That sounds like the Air Force failed to properly notify Chaplain Montanari — except the regs specifically say that notification is only required when “separation [is] initiated.” According to his timeline, Chaplain Montanari was already separated by his own choice when he lost his endorsement. Thus, if it is being accurately reported, the Air Force was not obligated to notify Montanari — a civilian — of a change in “endorsement” that was no longer relevant to his terminated term of service. Notably, it seems Chaplain Montanari never took the time to communicate with his endorser during those two years, despite continuing to rely upon a relationship with them.

More interesting is the decision to deny Chaplain Montanari a general return to service as a Jewish chaplain. In that case, his lawyers make a good point: The US military is short of Jewish chaplains anyway, and Montanari was reportedly a good chaplain before his conversion, so for what objective reason should he be denied a new position under a Jewish endorser?

First Liberty had an idea [emphasis added]:

During his in-person interview, Chaplain Montanari endured hostile and lengthy questions about his conversion and his previous unit’s superiors’ reactions to his changed beliefs.

The strong implication is Chaplain Montanari was denied the opportunity to be a Jewish chaplain because he had converted from Christianity to Judaism.

It is important to remember the military is not required to accept a chaplain (or even a change in endorsers) even if that chaplain is actively serving — and even if that chaplain represents some underserved minority faith. In at least one case, a Christian chaplain converted to Wicca and was separated rather than allowed to find another endorser. In another more famous one, then-Chaplain Gordon Klingenschmitt switched endorsers without a break in endorsement, which still necessitated a new approval — normally a formality. Klingenschmitt’s application was denied. Some endorsers even have a “custom” of not withdrawing their endorsement before they give the Chaplain an opportunity to find a new endorser.

Chaplain Montanari and First Liberty assert a complaint of three parts: mistreatment while he was still serving, failure to notify about the endorsing agency withdrawal, and discriminatory denial of service as a Jewish chaplain. The first two leave a lot of room for argument, nuance, and context. The third claim — that a previously qualified officer suddenly became unqualified, and the only thing that changed was his religious faith — has the most potential cause for legitimate grievance.

First Liberty is demonstrating a desire to truly protect that “first liberty” — religious freedom — even if some would claim the stereotypical religious faiths are reversed in this controversy. Religious freedom for all is ultimately a constitutional and admirable outcome — a rising tide, as they say, lifts all boats.

It is eternally tragic that Montanari has chosen to deny Christ, but it is his human right to do so, and no amount of legal coercion would (nor should attempt to) change that. The Christian faith, after all, is not one that can be forced upon another. In the end, Montanari appears to be requesting nothing more than the same accommodations other faiths receive, and that he should be granted.

Also at the WND.