For Immediate Release: 10.3.23
Contact: John Manning, email@example.com
Elizabeth Westhoff, firstname.lastname@example.org
Department of the Air Force Sued for Violating Reservist’s Free Speech and Religious Exercise Rights for Off-Duty Remarks
Space Force Reserve member given Letter of Admonishment for quoting Russian dissident and Christian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, criticizing “cancel culture.”
Plano, TX—First Liberty Institute, the law firm Winston & Strawn, and the Ave Maria School of Law Veterans and Servicemembers Law Clinic filed a federal lawsuit today against the Department of the Air Force and U.S. Space Force on behalf of Jace Yarbrough, a Space Force reservist, after he received an admonishment letter illegally targeting his Constitutionally protected off-duty remarks as a private citizen at a retirement ceremony.
You can read the complaint here.
“We’ve entered dangerous territory if the Air Force thinks it can punish Jace for his private religious exercise and private speech while acting as a private citizen in a private venue,” said Danielle Runyan, Senior Counsel for First Liberty Institute. “In his purely civilian capacity, Jace had permission to speak freely and exercise his U.S. Constitutional and federally protected rights as an American citizen. The Air Force’s punishment of Jace is a perfect example of the very cancel culture he warned about in his speech.”
Jace Yarbrough said, “As the totalizing claims of radical progressivism devour more and more of our common life and institutions, even prosaic, obvious, and natural truths are vilified as harmful and extreme. I did not seek out this fight, but my faith forbids me from quietly assenting to what I know to be false. As a Christian I will not live by lies, even if it means I am no longer allowed to serve in uniform the country that I love, which has been one of the singular privileges of my life.”
“As a Catholic law school committed to preserving religious liberty, this cause is central to our mission,” stated Antony Kolenc, Associate Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Veterans and Servicemembers Law Clinic at Ave Maria Law. “Our clinical students have been inspired by Jace’s courage to take a stand for the rights of military reservists. We hope this case will help stop the erosion of First Amendment protections in the U.S. Armed Forces.”
In early 2021, Mr. Yarbrough was invited to participate in the retirement ceremony of a fellow servicemember aboard the privately owned and operated Battleship Missouri Memorial, in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Mr. Yarbrough agreed to recognize SMSgt Duane Fish’s honorable service and delivered his remarks in uniform to a small group of like-minded friends and family. Mr. Yarbrough traveled to, attended, and spoke at SMSgt Fish’s retirement ceremony at his own expense and in his capacity as a friend and private citizen. Nevertheless, the Air Force issued Mr. Yarbrough a Letter of Admonishment (“LOA”) after certain military members present at the ceremony complained about the content of Mr. Yarbrough’s speech, which included quotes from Soviet dissident and Christian Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and addressed public concerns regarding the present state of the military culture. Unless the LOA is rescinded, it will continue to adversely impact Mr. Yarbrough’s career.
You can read Mr. Yarbrough’s retirement ceremony comments here.
The complaint states, “The LOA complained of herein was issued against Mr. Yarbrough’ in excess of statutory jurisdiction, authority, or limitations’ under 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(C). Defendants have not cited any statutory authorization that would permit military discipline against Mr. Yarbrough for his activities while in a purely civilian status.” It continues, “Mr. Yarbrough’s remarks during SMSgt Fish’s retirement ceremony were a direct exercise of his sincerely held religious beliefs and duties . . . . and Defendants violated the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act by issuing the LOA to Mr. Yarbrough for the content of his remarks. That Mr. Yarbrough wore a uniform at the time he made his remarks is insufficient to establish jurisdiction, as no statute grants Defendants jurisdictional authority simply because a person wears a uniform. Defendants’ own regulations permit civilians to wear military uniforms on occasion. See, e.g., AFI 36-2903, para 11.1.2 (authorizing a reservist in civilian status to wear the uniform during “occasions of military ceremonies” and “social functions and informal gatherings of a military nature”).
About First Liberty Institute
First Liberty Institute is a non-profit public interest law firm and the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.
To arrange an interview, contact John Manning at email@example.com or by calling 972-941-4453.
About Ave Maria School of Law
Ave Maria School of Law, consistently ranked as The Princeton Review’s “Most Conservative Law School,” preLaw’s “Most Devout Law School,” and one of Princeton Review’s “Best Law Schools,” provides students with a traditional legal education while emphasizing how the law intersects with the Catholic intellectual tradition and natural law philosophy.
To arrange an interview, contact Elizabeth Westhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org or 314-740-9954.