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Commander Relieves Senior Master Sergeant of Duties for Religious Beliefs on Marriage

Senior Master Sergeant Phillip Monk is a devout evangelical Christian and a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force who served as a First Sergeant at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. In early 2013, SMSgt Monk was asked to advise his commander on a disciplinary matter involving an Air Force instructor who was accused of making objectionable comments about same-sex marriage.

After a thorough investigation, SMSgt Monk determined the instructor meant no harm by his comments and suggested the Air Force use the incident as a way to teach about tolerance and diversity. However, SMSgt Monk’s commander told him he wasn’t on the “same page” as her. She also told him that if he didn’t get on the same page, she would find another place for him to work.

Later, the commander ordered SMSgt Monk to answer the question of whether objecting to same-sex marriage violates military regulations and constitutes discrimination. SMSgt Monk said he could not answer the way she wanted.

At that point, SMSgt Monk was relieved of his duties and reassigned. The commander told SMSgt Monk that he was “no longer allowed to be physically present” in the building or facilities in which his unit was based.

Legal Action

In August 2013, First Liberty filed a formal complaint with the military on behalf of SMSgt Monk. At the time the complaint was filed, SMSgt Monk was just months away from reaching the 20-year mark of service—a critical point in the Air Force regarding eligibility for retirement benefits.

During a meeting following the formal complaint filing, Air Force investigators abruptly read SMSgt Monk his Miranda rights and accused him of making false official statements—a crime punishable by court martial. The Air Force also threatened SMSgt Monk with dishonorable discharge and the loss of his pension.

First Liberty defended SMSgt Monk, and the Air Force cleared SMSgt Monk of all charges against him, avoiding any court-martial or disciplinary actions.

In February 2014, the Air Force awarded SMSgt Monk with a Meritorious Service Medal—an award given to a service member who distinguished himself or herself by demonstrating outstanding meritorious achievement or service. In May 2014, the Air Force approved SMSgt Monk’s retirement request.

The Air Force honorably discharged SMSgt Monk with full honors and full pension benefits, and in January 2015, First Liberty celebrated with SMSgt Monk at a retirement ceremony at his home church, Village Parkway Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas. The ceremony honored SMSgt Monk’s 20 years of service in the Air Force. First Liberty President and CEO Kelly Shackelford, General Counsel Jeff Mateer, Chief Operating Officer David Holmes, Director of Litigation Hiram Sasser, and Senior Counsel and Director of Military Affairs Michael Berry attended the event.
SMSgt Monk’s case is an example of how religious liberty in the military can be preserved when those who experience anti-religious discrimination stand up and speak out. Despite growing hostility to people of faith and traditional values, religious liberty can be protected. First Liberty Institute is committed to defending and restoring the religious liberty rights of those who bravely serve to protect America’s freedom.

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