WASHINGTON -- A senior Air Force NCO who says he was punished because of his opposition to gay marriage this week filed a formal complaint against his commander, claiming she violated his religious beliefs. Senior Master Sgt. Phillip Monk, a 19-year airman serving at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, claims he was relieved of his duties and reassigned following a heated exchange over the hot-button social issue. He has elicited help from the conservative Liberty Institute to "take action to protect religious liberty and ensure that the Air Force does not threaten any adverse consequences to his career." But Air Force officials insist his reassignment was routine, and they have no plans to force him out of the service.
The controversy comes on the heels of the Supreme Court decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, and the subsequent decision by military officials to offer partner benefits to legally married gay servicemembers. The moves have prompted a flurry of discussion about gay marriage in the ranks, and riled religious opponents of gay rights. But Monk's accusations go beyond philosophical disagreement. In a news conference this week, the former first sergeant with the 326th Training Squadron said his commander -- an open lesbian -- asked him whether he believed that religious opposition to same-sex marriage amounted to discrimination. Monk, a conservative Christian, said he did not think so. "I was relieved of my position because I don't agree with my commander's position on gay marriage," he said in a statement. "We've been told that if you publicly say that homosexuality is wrong, you are in violation of Air Force policy." Monk's attorneys say the airman was reassigned to another base post and eventually barred from unit buildings. They say the moves are in direct violation of military rules governing religious freedoms. But Air Force officials say that Monk's transfer from the squadron had been planned for months, to close out his two-year assignment there. Training wing spokeswoman Colleen McGee said Monk was not relieved of his position, but instead was informed of his upcoming assignment change in early May. McGee said Monk was transferred a few weeks ago -- about a month before he had expected to move -- but only because his replacement arrived ahead of schedule. She also said the Air Force has launched an investigation into Monk's claims, to determine if any command violations may have occurred. Monk has said that he worries the abrupt removal from his previous assignment will reflect poorly on his career, and jeopardize a Meritorious Service Medal he was told he was recommended for earlier this year. Air Force regulations state that servicemembers "should confidently practice your own beliefs while respecting others whose viewpoints differ from your own." The also mandate that commanders ensure that "requests for religious accommodation are dealt with fairly." Conservative critics of the military in recent months have reported they've seen a pattern of discrimination against Christian troops and chaplains, and blamed gay rights advocates for attempting to marginalize religious viewpoints in the ranks. Gay rights and atheist advocates have countered that Christian groups are the ones discriminating, by trying to reassert their religious views as formal military policy over the wishes of a diverse military population.