Phases of Subtle Discrimination in the Armed Forces

What every Christian service member should know

by Sonny Hernandez

Religious discrimination is not a myth that Christians should ignore. First Liberty Institute reported that a Southern Baptist military chaplain is being investigated—not because he violated a policy—but because of his religious convictions. Army Chaplain Scott Squires allegedly explained to a Soldier that he could not conduct a marriage retreat that included same sex couples because of his religious convictions that are mandated by his endorsing agency, and protected by Federal law. As a result, an Army investigator concluded that “Chaplain Squires discriminated because his chaplain endorsing agency, the North American Mission Board (NAMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), forbids its chaplains from facilitating marriage retreats that include same-sex couples,” according to the First Liberty Institute.

There are typically four phases that cultivate the discrimination process. Christians need to pay careful attention to this. First, Christian service members may be advised to omit any reference of Jesus Christ. It is important to note that there are no policies that prohibit the name of Christ from being mentioned in either military publications, or in public prayer and activities. Second, a Christian’s references to Christ may be redacted because of fear that someone will complain, make a threat, or become offended. Again, the Constitution does not protect a right to not be offended. Third, others may gather to subtly harass the Christian service member. And fourth, the discrimination will be commenced.

I know these four phases personally, because I have experienced all of them, and have carefully documented the experiences. This article will explain the process of what I have experienced, and what other Christians in the military can expect.

Phase 1: You may be advised to omit your faith convictions

Since early 2015, I have been assigned to a reserve unit at WPAFB. Immediately, I was tasked by my then-supervisor (senior chaplain) to write a publication in the base newsletter. Sadly, this senior chaplain advised me to, “Not stress any particular faith expression, to include my own (Christian) convictions” [emphasis added]:

Ch Hernandez,

Could you please compose a brief [redacted] entry for the April submission and send to [name redacted] and [name redacted] in the [redacted] office included on the message. Time is slipping away. Please assure the it is does not stress any particular faith expression and deals with the spiritual nature of life events. I have been reading Rick Warren’s What on Earth Am I Here For? In my devotional time from the PURPOSE DRIVEN LIFE. Something not faith specific be it Jewish, Christian or evangelical would be preferred since the freedom from religion organization is always looking at our entries for references to Jesus or Salvation…”

It is important to note that there are no policies, rules, laws, regulations, or anything in the Constitution that prohibits faith specifics. Instead of permitting me to exercise my Constitutional right, this senior chaplain appealed to the “heckler’s veto” to avoid receiving a complaint from an anti-Christian foundation. If my faith was abridged, I can only imagine how other service members could be affected as well.

Phase 2: If possible, your faith convictions may be redacted

I was allowed to submit articles around 2015 to be published in my base newsletter. I was perplexed when I found out that my article was published with my faith convictions omitted. My supervisor emailed me to let me know that he altered my article—not for grammar— but for content to fit into the “big Air Force format’:

Ch Hernandez,

I made some changes to personalize your article and put it into the chaplain context. [name redacted] agreed with much of your entry although found it to be more in line with a sermon format.  I took the liberty to alter it to fit their, and the big AF, format.  We are scrutinized closely as Chaplains due to nature of our faith walk and expressions.  There is a major movement afoot to attempt to take us down and take us out.  Thanks be to God who is in control of all…

Again, there are no policies or laws that prohibit a Christian from sharing his faith convictions. But out of fear that “Chaplains will be taken down and out of the military,” this senior chaplain redacted some of my theological content to reflect his own.

Phase 3: Christians should expect subtle harassment

To make matters worse, I also had to endure harassment due to writing on my own time—as a civilian—on a matter of public interest. As a civilian, I have been writing for two years on, Barbwire, and also World Net Daily (WND). All of my articles have a disclaimer that make it known that my articles were written on my own time as a civilian, and not on military orders. Nevertheless, I was harassed for four consecutive months about the theological articles I had written as a civilian. During my one weekend a month training as a reservist, I was habitually asked about my theological articles that I had written on non-military time, and I was also warned that the theological articles I had written as a civilian would impact my military career. That is what necessitated my email to my former supervisor [emphasis added]:

  1. How many more months am I going to be addressed about my theological convictions expressed as a civilian, written completely on my own time about theology and matters of public interest?
  2. Since you and I are going to meet with [name redacted], could you please explain his position in my chain of command so I can inform my endorser? Is he directly part of my chain of command?
  3. How does all this attention and what an objective observer could construe as threats from both command and staff in response to my civilian articles comport with the statutory chaplain protections the 2013 and 2014 National Defense Authorization Acts established and are now part of Title 10?

Phase 4: Discrimination will be commenced

Up to this point, I have carefully explained how my former supervisor had asked me to omit my faith, and how I had felt harassed for several months. Nevertheless, I have not omitted my faith, nor I have ceased from exercising my constitutional right to exercise my faith by writing civilian articles that reflect my sincerely held theological convictions.

As a result, I have had to endure subtle discrimination in many ways. Here is an example.

The Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) Chaplain Development Team (DT) met 16-20 October 2017 at Headquarters Air Reserve Personnel Center (ARPC), Buckley AFB, CO. This DT, consisting of 10 senior leaders, evaluated the records of all eligible members. The purpose of this vectoring is to provide career advice and development options that will enable service members to further develop to best meet mission requirements and career goals. In 2017, I applied to be placed on the Key Personnel List (KPL), also known as a High Potential Officer (HPO) list. I applied so my career information would be evaluated (officer performance reports, civilian education, military education, participation, etc.).

In November, I was notified that I was not selected to be on the Key Personnel List. I contacted the APRC Assignment Facilitator, about why I was not selected. His response was perplexing to me. Upon looking my name up in his database, he seemed confounded in my opinion, about apparent changes to my packet, that he did not seem to be aware of. After carefully reviewing my information in his database, he informed me that the changes he had seen to my packet necessitated a phone call to someone at the Air Force Reserve Command Chaplains Office. After a few days I called him back, and he would not answer my questions of who made changes to my packet, and why. All he did was proceed to tell me that my questions would need to be directed to the AFRC Command Chaplain. Here are additional reasons I was perplexed about not being selected:

I have only been an officer since 2010. But in this short time, I have been: Stratified #1 among my peers on 7 Officer Performance Reports; awarded the CGO (IMA) of the Year (AFLCMC); CGO of the Quarter (445th Airlift Wing); nominated in 2016 for the CGO of the Year (445th Airlift Wing); promoted to Deputy Wing Chaplain position as a junior Captain; and earned an accredited doctorate with a 3.89 GPA. Not to mention, to be placed on the “Key Personnel List,” it is necessary to have a supervisor recommendation. My then-supervisor had provided the necessary recommendation [emphasis added]:

“Ch Hernandez is ready for additional responsibilities in the Chaplain Corps. He presents far above his peers in visibility, counseling, and is a responsible and necessary member of the 445th Chaplain Corps team. In taking on additional responsibilities as a Deputy Wing Chaplain he has managed his duties superbly and greatly assisted the Wing Chaplain in awards and decorations, EPR and OPR evaluation and administrative duty and function. He is more than ready for promotion to the next rank and postured to expand his leadership role. I would encourage you to consider positions in the Deliberate Management process as they are available and apply for backfills through the new personnel HCP program as they are available. Continue updated on your PRF and OPR evaluation and posture towards a Wing chaplain position within the next 1-2 years.”

I contacted an individual in the Chaplaincy Corps leadership and asked, “How come I was not accepted when someone I know was accepted, who has far less stratifications, no earned doctorate, and no CGO awards?” In this email, I requested the opportunity to speak with the command chaplain at AFRC to discuss my concerns for several issues. Instead, I was sent a message [emphasis added]:

Thanks for sharing Ch Hernandez’ recent email…

Both questions he presents deal with processes.  The first question addresses the Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) Chaplain Development Team (DT) that met on 16-20 October 2017.  In his email, he states, “I asked him how come I was not accepted when I have…” followed by describing several stratifications and awards.

Per business rules, the Force Development process begins with the member annotating development preferences and other pertinent information concerning career progression goals.  This “ODP” is then routed to the member’s supervisor who then routes to ARPC/DPAF, who manages the process.  They organize the chaplain DT which consists of O6 chaplains, including myself as the Career Field Manager.  The DT is chaired by the MA to the Chief of Chaplains.  This is the makeup of the DT Panel.

By charter, the Panel is directed to review each member’s career information (including OPRs, civilian education, military education, participation, etc…) as well as member and supervisor comments in the ODP.  A score is given.  After the scoring, the vectoring process begins.  A “Key Personnel list (KPL), also known as a High Potential Officer(HPO) list, is created.

I am presuming when he states that he was not “accepted,” the KPL is what he is referencing.  Per policy, the deliberation process is confidential.  I can say that each member is examined and a “whole person concept” is considered when scoring and vectoring occurs. 

Fortunately for the AFR Chaplain Corps, there were many strong records scored; however, for the 2017 HC DT, he was not selected to be placed on the KPL. He may want to reference AFPD 36-26, Total Force Development, 27 Aug 08; AFI 36-2640, Executing Total Force Development, 16 Dec 08; and AFDD 1-1, Leadership and Force Development, 8 Nov 11….

As expected, I was informed about the “whole person concept.” And I was notified that there were many strong records scored, and was not accepted to be on the KPL, while ignoring that I have a colleague that was accepted who had a less remarkable record. An objective observer may speculate if the “whole person concept” is a legal way for liberals to discriminate against Bible-believing conservative Christians. Here is an example how: A Bible-believing conservative Chaplain may have an unprecedented record, while a liberal Chaplain may have a substandard record. Yet, the liberal Chaplain is selected for active duty, or a special school, or for special duty. Again, objective observers should wonder if this is allowed to happen because the board who determines the most qualified candidates are afforded with arbitrary and subjective powers to select individuals based on the “whole person concept.”

In closing, everything thus far in this article are just a few examples. Again, few will transparently declare their bias against conservative Christianity. Most are more politically correct than that, because they do not want to be exposed on national headlines. Instead they will try to find ways to either discriminate, or find ways to create a paper-trail to make it appear that their agenda is not because of religious bigotry. I have experienced this kind of subtle discrimination—which is bad overall—not just for Christians. I will be writing on this in the near future.

If you are a Christian who is facing discrimination, contact a religious liberty lawyer ASAP. That way, you know how to respond without violating policy, and so you can protect your career from religious bigotry. Also, if you are facing persecution because of your faith, rejoice. Remember, they hate you because they hate Christ. Therefore, since Christ was persecuted and was killed, you should expect nothing less.

If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you.  If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you (John 15:18-19).

Chaplain (Capt) Sonny Hernandez is a US Air Force Reserve Chaplain assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. In April 2015, he was selected as the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center Individual Mobilization Augmentee Company Grade Officer of the Year, and in May 2016, he was selected as 445th Airlift Wing CGO of the Quarter, first quarter. Hernandez earned a Doctorate from Tennessee Temple University in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The opinions expressed here are solely his and do not necessarily represent the views of any government, military, or religious organization. Sonny Hernandez wrote this article as a civilian on his own time on an issue of public interest.