Air Force Recognizes Colonel’s Right to Discriminate Against Spouses of Gay Airmen

Leland Bohannon objects to same-sex marriage on religious grounds. What rights should he have to act on that belief?

A bizarre story from Task & Purpose (“Colonel Has Right Not To Recognize His Gay Master Sergeant’s Spouse, Air Force Says“):

The Air Force has exonerated a colonel who said his religious beliefs prevented him from signing certificate of spouse appreciation for a retiring master sergeant’s same-sex spouse.

Col. Leland Bohannon was suspended after he had a higher-ranking officer sign the certificate in his stead, but he successfully appealed to the Director of the Air Force Review Boards Agency, the Air Force said in a statement.

“The Air Force 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,” the Air Force statement says.

“The Air Force has a duty to treat people fairly and without discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, or sexual orientation and met that duty by having a more senior officer sign the certificate.”

Bohannon’s records will now be updated to reflect his successful appeal, the statement says. The Air Force declined to respond when Task & Purpose asked if the service condones Bohannon’s religious beliefs on gays and lesbians.

The colonel had the support of lawmakers such as Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., who wrote Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson in November to argue that the service’s protections for airmen based on their sexual orientation are against the law.

“Congress and the courts have rejected the notion that ‘sex’ includes ‘sexual orientation,'” Hartzler wrote. “The Air Force does not have the liberty to define new legal protections and this should certainly not constitute the grounds to punish airmen.”

The Air Force should have granted Bohannon a religious accommodation because the certificate “effectively had zero impact to the military member and therefore no adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, good order, discipline, or health and safety,” Hartzler wrote.

First off, Hartzler is simply wrong. There have been numerous Supreme Court and other federal decisions ruling discrimination on account of sexual orientation unconstitutional.  Most notably, of course, Obergefell v. Hodges and its companion cases recognized a right of same-sex couples to marry back in 2015. Two years earlier, US vs Windsor overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, thereby requiring states to recognize the same-sex marriages performed by other states.  Lawrence vs Texas set this all in motion, ruling in 2003 that laws punishing sexual relations between same-sex couples were a violation of equal protection. The Obama Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs almost immediately recognized Obergefell as requiring equal treatment for gays, whether in the armed services or as veterans, in terms of benefits.

Unlike most of my commentariat, I don’t consider Bohannon a bigot for not having internalized this new reality. Many officers of strong moral character have been slow to reconcile this seismic change in the cultural landscape and legitimately wrestle with how they can simultaneously do their job and comply with their deeply held moral convictions stemming from their religious backgrounds.

I do, however, expect Bohannon and other officers who haven’t resigned their commissions to do their job.

It is customary in all services for retiring soldiers’ spouses to be recognized for their contribution to the service members’ careers. Historically, of course, it was almost always women who had been tending to the homefront while their husbands were off serving their country in uniform. More recently, there have been more male spouses who have helped their wives in their military career (although, frankly, typically not to the same degree). Now, like it or not, there are same-sex spouses.

Bohannon’s legitimate options, then, were twofold: He could recognize the spouses of all retiring airmen or, following the tradition of the municipalities who closed all public pools rather than allow black people to swim with whites, he could have stopped recognizing any of them. What he clearly shouldn’t have been allowed to do is what he did.

It’s simply a slap in the face to a retiring NCO to refuse to sign a piece of paper thanking their spouse for sacrifices for the nation. That it was signed by a two-star general rather than the CO isn’t an upgrade, it’s an insult that would surely be noticed. It is simply unacceptable.

FILED UNDER: LGBT Rights, Military Affairs
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Scott says:

    One, he is providing a certificate of appreciation on behalf of the Air Force, not himself. It is his position that is doing to appreciating. And his position has no religion.

    Second, I hope that some spouse that follows will pointedly reject any certificate signed by this disgraceful douchebag.

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  2. This is no different than the Kim Davis case from a few years back.

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  3. Kathy says:

    No government official should ever be allowed to discriminate against anyone on any grounds, while acting in their official capacity.

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  4. Gustopher says:

    Unlike most of my commentariat, I don’t consider Bohannon a bigot for not having internalized this new reality. Many officers of strong moral character have been slow to reconcile this seismic change in the cultural landscape and legitimately wrestle with how they can simultaneously do their job and comply with their deeply held moral convictions stemming from their religious backgrounds.

    Strong moral character is usually accompanied by something other than a narrow mind. Stubborn, backwards character trying to enforce their religion on others is more precise.

    He should just shut up and do his job, and not discriminate against the people in his command. If it is too hard for him to reconcile the fact that there are civil marriages and religious marriages, and that they are not the same thing, then maybe he should leave the Air Force.

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  5. An Interested Party says:

    Unlike most of my commentariat, I don’t consider Bohannon a bigot for not having internalized this new reality. Many officers of strong moral character have been slow to reconcile this seismic change in the cultural landscape and legitimately wrestle with how they can simultaneously do their job and comply with their deeply held moral convictions stemming from their religious backgrounds.

    This person is no better than someone in a similar situation in the 1950s or 1960s involving an interracial couple…certainly that would be considered bigotry, so why not this? Hiding behind the fig leaf of religion hardly washes away the stain of bigotry, whether it be racism or homophobia…

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  6. gVOR08 says:

    bigot (plural bigots) – One who is narrow-mindedly devoted to their own ideas and groups, and intolerant of (people of) differing ideas, races, genders, religions, politics, etc. – Wiktionary.

    I can readily sympathize with someone who has strong religious views and finds himself out of step with the times. But whatever sympathy I have for his position, I can’t see how he’s not a bigot. Especially given the triviality of what he refused to do. That said, he’s not the villian here. You can do whatever you want, if you’re willing to suffer the consequences. The AF officials who let him off are the villains.

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  7. Erik says:

    the certificate “effectively had zero impact to the military member and therefore no adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, good order, discipline, or health and safety,” Hartzler wrote

    This is clearly not correct. At a minimum this action disrupts unit cohesion, as others with similar bigoted views feel emboldened and those they would attack disenfranchised. Anyone who even was queer friendly in that unit would know that they were second class citizens in the colonel’s command. This is no different than if he had discriminated against a given religious point of view in that regard.

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  8. DrDaveT says:

    @Scott:

    he is providing a certificate of appreciation on behalf of the Air Force, not himself. It is his position that is doing to appreciating. And his position has no religion.

    Unfortunately, as recent events at the Air Force Academy have shown, this is not true. The Air Force does have a religion — and that’s a much worse problem than Colonel BigotBohannon not signing a certificate of spouse appreciation.

  9. DrDaveT says:

    Many officers of strong moral character have been slow to reconcile this seismic change in the cultural landscape and legitimately wrestle with how they can simultaneously do their job and comply with their deeply held moral convictions stemming from their religious backgrounds.

    James, you really need to think hard about this confusion you have between moral positions and religious positions. You repeatedly conflate the two.

    It’s easier if you pick examples from other people’s religions. For example, believing that being raped makes a woman unclean is a religious position, but not in any way indicative of “strong moral character”. Colonel Bohannon’s position is roughly equivalent in moral status.

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  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @An Interested Party: They used religious arguments to justify their opposition to interracial marriage too. The more things change the more they stay the same.

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  11. KM says:

    The funny thing about all this nonsense is the kind of actions the Colonel took are decidedly against the stated principles of the Christian faith. Jesus as depicted in the Gospels would never have excluded the spouse and would have gone the extra mile to associate with them. The entire point of Christianity back in the day was its inclusiveness: *everyone* is a child of God and equal in His eyes as we all fall short. For the first few centuries of it’s existence, it was the faith of the poor and the marginalized, not the mainstream faith of “normal people”. Hell, if the aesthetics had their way, *nobody* would be getting married so we wouldn’t even have this argument!

    What Colonel Bohannon claims is a matter of faith is not. It’s a matter of culture and personal opinion. Even if he considers SSM a sin, he is supposed to love the sinner and hate the sin, not the other way around. He is supposed to show kindness and compassion in emulation of his savior – issuing a piece of paper thanking someone for being a loving and supporting source of strength in a servicemen’s life seems like the least you can do. Frankly, Jesus would not approve of denying someone such a small thing over a point He would have voiced an opinion on if it were that all-fired important.

    I consider myself a person of faith and I would never use it to deliberately exclude someone I thought was a sinner. My faith commands me to turn the other cheek, accept the stranger, welcome the sinner and do unto them as I would have done unto me. Then again, I’m a Christian and he’s a CINO. Whatever point he thinks he’s making, it’s not one for God.

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  12. Kathy says:

    @DrDaveT:

    James, you really need to think hard about this confusion you have between moral positions and religious positions. You repeatedly conflate the two.

    Agreed.

    The predominant view that morality comes only through a deity, makes people equate religion with morality. Plainly this is not the case, and very likely never was.

  13. SKI says:

    @DrDaveT:

    James, you really need to think hard about this confusion you have between moral positions and religious positions. You repeatedly conflate the two.

    This.

    @gVOR08:

    I can readily sympathize with someone who has strong religious views and finds himself out of step with the times. But whatever sympathy I have for his position, I can’t see how he’s not a bigot.

    Also this.

    Clearly a bigot (prejudiced against a group of people) and I don’t see what would cause you to call him “moral” unless you are equating strongly religious with being moral… in which case there are some fanatics I’d like to introduce you too. And if you are instead thing that it is not religious in general but religiously Christian…

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  14. James Joyner says:

    @Gustopher: @An Interested Party: I’m reluctant to label people who still believe what probably 85% of their countrymen believed a decade ago “bigots” because they have yet to accommodate themselves to a change that seemed to come about suddenly. (Obviously, the gay rights movement is decades old; but it was much more underground than the black civil rights and women’s lib movements and rather than come about as a series of gradual changes it was almost overnight.)

    @DrDaveT: I’m not conflating religion and morality. I’m decidedly anti-theistic. I don’t know Bohannon personally but I know a lot of majors, lieutenant colonels, and even generals who vehemently oppose gay marriage and even find homosexual conduct immoral. They’re otherwise extremely decent folks who are raising decent kids and doing a lot to help their fellow man. I don’t think we need to assign them malign intent.

    Beyond the above, I don’t think it helpful to attack people who are slightly behind the curve on adapting to social change. Calling them bigots and equating them to the Klan or Islamic extremists simply puts them on the defensive and confirms their fears about a liberal elite trying to take away “their” country. I think we can be patient with them and try to convince them. That’ll become easier as marriage, the military service, and other institutions survive gays entering into it.

  15. KM says:

    @James Joyner:
    Nobody wants to be told they are a bad person. Nobody wants to think of themselves as indecent even when engaging in indecent act. We all like to pretend that bad people do bad things and that a good soul is still good even if they do them as well. One can have a good heart and still be completely bigoted in thoughts and actions. The world does not exist in absolutes.

    How many times do we hear of people who’ve committed horrible acts as “a good person” or a “good church-goer” or the “nice guy next door”? At what point does the good men do overtake the ill? If one is a saint except for that one aspect of their lives, are they still a saint?

    Questions with answers above my pay grade. I generally dislike people who use “I’m a fundamentally good guy” as an excuse for their behavior. That may be true but in that specific instance, they’re being an asshat and that’s what they’re being judged on. The world is full of nice guys being not particularity nice at the moment so it’s not the get out of jail free card people think it is. Life is compromised of moments and in that moment, who you are matters not who you were 5 minutes ago. You are entitled to your beliefs but common courtesy dictates you keep your issues to yourself. If you cannot cope, if you are “behind the times”, that is your issue to come to terms with and you should not be taking it out on others.

    Again, as a Christian, this is why we are told to turn the other cheek and offer out our hands in welcome. Is it unpleasant? Yes. Is it hard? Hell yes. But that’s my struggle and not the fault of the other person that I can’t reconcile my faith with my circumstances. The Colonel and people like him need to be more like Christ and less like Paul.

  16. Jon says:

    @James Joyner:

    So the people being discriminated against are supposed to sit back and wait for the people oppressing them to come to terms with their own bigotry, all the while continuing to discriminate? It seems that history takes a dim view on how that has turned out to date. It also seems an odd stance to take the day after the anniversary of the murder of MLK, who had thoughts on just that

  17. James Joyner says:

    @Jon: I’m not sure why you’d expect me to time my commentary based on the 50 year +1 day anniversary of MLK’s murder.

  18. Kathy says:

    @James Joyner:

    Beyond the above, I don’t think it helpful to attack people who are slightly behind the curve on adapting to social change.

    You may have a point when what’s involved are things like the subject of this post. But what about when someone’s “sincerely held religious beliefs” mean they won’t hire someone who’s gay or transgender, or won’t provide medical care, or won’t approve a loan or mortgage, or other things like that?

    What if it were you who’s being discriminated in such cases? Or your son or daughter, or brother or sister?

  19. James Joyner says:

    @Kathy:

    But what about when someone’s “sincerely held religious beliefs” mean they won’t hire someone who’s gay or transgender, or won’t provide medical care, or won’t approve a loan or mortgage, or other things like that?

    They’re legally required to do all of those things, no?

    The post argues that the Air Force is wrong here. I don’t necessarily condemn the colonel for holding sincere religious beliefs. I do think he has an obligation as a leader to treat his subordinates and their spouses equally.

  20. Kathy says:

    @James Joyner:

    They’re legally required to do all of those things, no?

    No, they are not. Protections against discrimination vary by state. And even when these exist, it does little good to sue afterwards if you’re out on the street for lack of a job, or nearly broke from medical bills because your condition got much worse while you couldn’t find treatment.

  21. An Interested Party says:

    I’m reluctant to label people who still believe what probably 85% of their countrymen believed a decade ago “bigots” because they have yet to accommodate themselves to a change that seemed to come about suddenly.

    So you would not label anyone in the 1950s and 1960s who was opposed to interracial marriage as being bigoted? They just didn’t accommodate themselves to a sudden change…uh huh…

  22. James Joyner says:

    @An Interested Party: Loving vs. Virginia wasn’t decided until 1967. So . . . it depends. There are legitimate bigots out there who hate gay people. And there are torn people with strong religious convictions who think marriage between two people of the same sex is a sin. The overlap is far from 100%.

  23. An Interested Party says:

    And there are torn people with strong religious convictions who think marriage between two people of the same sex of different “races” is a sin.

    I’m sure there are still people who feel this way…are they bigots? I agree the overlap is far from 100%, but it’s pretty sad when some people hide behind their religious beliefs (either consciously or unconsciously) to justify their bigotry…

  24. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’m not conflating religion and morality. I’m decidedly anti-theistic. I don’t know Bohannon personally but I know a lot of majors, lieutenant colonels, and even generals who vehemently oppose gay marriage and even find homosexual conduct immoral.

    On grounds that have nothing to do with religion, explicitly or implicitly? Seriously? I don’t believe you. But then, you yourself go on to say:

    I don’t necessarily condemn the colonel for holding sincere religious beliefs.

    …which makes it clear that you DO think this is a religious matter, not a philosophical position.

    Your position is a mess, James. It’s pretty clear that you are ready to defend sincerely held Christian beliefs because they are sincerely held, but would not defend similarly sincere bigotry from any other religion. (Female circumcision, anyone?) So apparently “Christian” is the key ingredient…

  25. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    And there are torn people with strong religious convictions who think marriage between two people of the same sex is a sin.

    So have you now abandoned your earlier claim that this is a moral position, as opposed to a religious position?

    Bottom line, I don’t care how torn they are — I expect them to behave as if they were NOT bigots when performing the duties of their position. My religion teaches that to do otherwise is a grave sin — but it also teaches that I should try to treat such sinners as I would like to be treated.

  26. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT: Nope. My position is that they’re moral people whose religion has conditioned them to take a position I find immoral.

    Because genital mutalation is so far outside my culture, I have a harder time understanding it. But I don’t think tribesmen who engage in it are necessarily immoral–I simply find the practice reprehensible.

  27. wr says:

    @James Joyner: One thing I don’t understand here — I thought members of the military were required to follow all legal orders. But it seems to me (and please correct me if I’m wrong) that you’re saying that this officer didn’t need to follow orders because he disapproved of gay marriage. How can you reconcile these two ideas?

  28. James Joyner says:

    @wr:

    But it seems to me (and please correct me if I’m wrong) that you’re saying that this officer didn’t need to follow orders because he disapproved of gay marriage. How can you reconcile these two ideas?

    I’m arguing that, whatever his personal morality, he has a duty to treat the spouses of opposite-sex and same-sex airmen equally. The Air Force has said he does not. I think the Air Force is wrong.

    If his commanding general had ordered him to issue the certificate and he refused, he would be in violation of the UCMJ. Instead, the CG just signed the letter him/herself.

  29. wr says:

    @James Joyner: Ok. Thanks.

  30. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    My position is that they’re moral people whose religion has conditioned them to take a position I find immoral.

    Then why are you defending them? This still sounds like you think it’s OK to be immoral as long as you’re immoral for sincere religious reasons. That’s just nuts.

    Because genital mutalation is so far outside my culture, I have a harder time understanding it. But I don’t think tribesmen who engage in it are necessarily immoral–I simply find the practice reprehensible.

    So you think there are actions that are both reprehensible and moral? Or immoral without being reprehensible?

    Now I’m really confused. I’m beginning to suspect that you mean something very different by ‘moral’ than anyone else in this conversation. If it doesn’t mean “what my religion teaches me is right”, and it doesn’t mean “what is praiseworthy (or at least not reprehensible)”, then what exactly does it mean to you?

  31. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT: This is the classic ethics vs. morals debate.

    A lawyer’s morals may tell her that murder is reprehensible and that murderers should be punished, but her ethics as a professional lawyer, require her to defend her client to the best of her abilities, even if she knows that the client is guilty.

    Another example can be found in the medical field. In most parts of the world, a doctor may not euthanize a patient, even at the patient’s request, as per ethical standards for health professionals. However, the same doctor may personally believe in a patient’s right to die, as per the doctor’s own morality.

    As Britannica notes,

    Both morality and ethics loosely have to do with distinguishing the difference between “good and bad” or “right and wrong.” Many people think of morality as something that’s personal and normative, whereas ethics is the standards of “good and bad” distinguished by a certain community or social setting. For example, your local community may think adultery is immoral, and you personally may agree with that. However, the distinction can be useful if your local community has no strong feelings about adultery, but you consider adultery immoral on a personal level. By these definitions of the terms, your morality would contradict the ethics of your community. In popular discourse, however, we’ll often use the terms moral and immoral when talking about issues like adultery regardless of whether it’s being discussed in a personal or in a community-based situation.

    It makes no sense to me to label people immoral for having different ethical frameworks than me. Those differ from society to society and over time.