On September 6, 2013, the Family Research Council (FRC) launched a petition to "Protect Sergeant Phillip Monk from Air Force Court Martial." Incredibly, just over a month later, on October 12, the very same organization paraded Sergeant Monk out at its Values Voter Summit, a political event in which the participation of an active duty service member is strictly prohibited by military regulations, the violation of which could subject Sergeant Monk to punishment by ... um ... court-martial.
If you're not familiar with the story of Phillip Monk, he's the Air Force Senior Master Sergeant who's become the poster boy for the fundamentalist Christians who are still throwing a hissy fit over the repeal of 'Don't ask, don't tell' -- a fit that has gotten even hissier since the overturning of DOMA.
In the two years since the repeal of DADT, none of the dire predictions pushed by the anti-gay fundamentalist crowd that this would be the end of civilization as we know it have come true, so they're now having to invent problems in order to be able to say "we told you so." So, what they're now claiming is that there is a "reverse don't ask, don't tell" in the military, with Christian service members having to be "in the closet." Seriously, this is what SMSgt. Monk said to Todd Starnes of Fox News: "Christians have to go into the closet. ... We are being robbed of our dignity and respect. We can't be who we are."
Starnes has been the Fox News mouthpiece for the FRC since the beginning, writing article after article about how Christians are being persecuted by the military, with such far-fetched tales as a Christian Air Force basic trainee being forced to repeat basic training for simply saying they were a Christian.
As I've previously written, this 'Christians are being persecuted by the military' claim has been pushed heavily since last spring, with the biggest pushers in the media being Fox News's Todd Starnes and breitbart.com, where the "journalist" writing article after article on the subject also just happens to be the director of the FRC's Center for Religious Liberty.
Under the guise of "religious liberty" in the military, Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) introduced an amendment to the FY14 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The real purpose of Fleming's amendment, however, is not religious liberty. Its purpose is take away the ability of military commanders to stop anti-gay harassment and discrimination within their ranks. Fleming's amendment was introduced on June 5, and in late June, the so-called "Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition" was formed to champion this so-called "religious liberty" amendment. The four primary organizations in this coalition are the Family Research Council (FRC), the American Family Association (AFA), Chaplains Alliance for Religious Liberty (CARL), and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). To these people, military religious freedom means one thing -- the ability of anti-gay Christians to publicly denigrate and harass LGB service members in a post-DADT and post-DOMA military, and they're making no secret about that.
To gain support for their campaign to allow military Christians to exercise their god-given right to bash the gays, a good propaganda campaign was of course necessary, and the so-called champions of religious freedom hit the jackpot with SMSgt. Monk. Not only did he have a story of alleged Christian persecution, but his commanding officer is reportedly an out lesbian!
The FRC and Fox News jumped on the story of SMSgt. Monk, and aren't letting go of it despite the fact that an Air Force investigation has found his claim of religious discrimination to be unsubstantiated.
So, what's SMSgt. Monk's story? He claims that he was let go from his position and faced possible court-martial because he disagreed with his openly gay commander about same-sex marriage during a meeting about the punishment a staff sergeant should receive for making anti-gay comments in a training situation. The findings of the Air Force's investigation into the complaint filed by Monk, however, tell a different story.
The incident that prompted the meeting between Monk and his commanding officer was that a staff sergeant under Monk's supervision had imposed his religious beliefs opposing homosexuality and same-sex marriage on trainees, violating the Air Force's policy prohibiting anyone from using their position of authority to promote their personal religious beliefs. Exactly what was said by this staff sergeant is not known because the only publicly available version of what was said is coming from SMSgt. Monk. But, whatever the exact comments were, they were obviously offensive enough that they led seven basic trainees to complain about them.
As the first sergeant in charge of this staff sergeant, Monk was called in to discuss how the staff sergeant should be punished, and the disagreement between Monk and his commanding officer was over the punishment he should receive. Monk did not think the staff sergeant should be punished at all, and that the incident should just be considered a "learning experience." His commanding officer disagreed, being of the opinion that the staff sergeant should receive some type of punishment. The staff sergeant ended up receiving a letter of counseling, a formal notice of improper conduct that can be placed in a service member's permanent file. (See note below)
Monk then filed a complaint against his commanding officer, claiming that she violated his religious rights by asking him questions about his opinion on same-sex marriage. He further alleged that he was removed from his position as first sergeant because of this incident, and took his story of Christian persecution to the media, starting with Fox News's Todd Starnes. In every interview and media appearance after that, Monk kept up his story that he was removed from his position because of his Christian values. The problem is that, as the Air Force investigation found, Monk's removal from his position had nothing to do with his disagreement with his commanding officer. He had already been scheduled to be rotated to another position before any of this happened.
There are many other holes and inconsistencies in Monk's story, which I'll get to in a future piece after the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), the organization that I work for, investigates further, which at this point will require a FOIA request. (We have this silly policy at MRFF about verifying all the facts before we write about things.)
But what I want to get to in this piece is SMSgt. Monk's appearance at last weekend's Values Voter Summit, something that requires no further investigation. There is no question that Monk violated military regulations by appearing at this event.
As I said at the top of this piece, the petition launched by the Family Research Council on September 6 was to "Protect Sergeant Phillip Monk from Air Force Court Martial." As of last week, however, Monk no longer had to worry about being court-martialed. He had been accused of making false statements about the situation with his commanding officer, which is a violation of military regulations that could be punished by court-martial, but on October 8 the Air Force's put out a news release saying that its investigation into the incident was closed, and that no disciplinary action would be taken against Monk. The investigation found that while the statements made by Monk were false, "they did not rise to a level that violated Articles 107 and/or 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice." In other words, as of last week, SMSgt. Monk was in no danger of being court-martialed. So, what did the FRC do? Well, they had Monk commit another violation of military regulations that really could subject him to a court-martial!
What was this other violation? Monk's appearance on a panel at the Values Voter Summit, an event run by none other than the FRC.
The panel, moderated by Todd Starnes, consisted of SMSgt. Monk, Monk's lawyer from the Liberty Institute, Ron Crews from the so-called "Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition," and retired General William "Jerry" Boykin, the executive vice president of the FRC (and a board member of of the organization led by the preacher who recently proposed a "military takeover" of the government).
The military's regulations on service members appearing at political events are clear. An active duty service member, in or out of uniform, may not appear as a speaker at any political event.
Section Section 4.1.2 of DODD 1344.10, the Department of Defense Directive on "Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces," is very clear:
A member of the Armed Forces on active duty shall not:
220.127.116.11. Participate in partisan political fundraising activities (except as permitted in subparagraph 18.104.22.168.), rallies, conventions (including making speeches in the course thereof), management of campaigns, or debates, either on one's own behalf or on that of another, without respect to uniform or inference or appearance of official sponsorship, approval, or endorsement. Participation includes more than mere attendance as a spectator.
22.214.171.124. Speak before a partisan political gathering, including any gathering that promotes a partisan political party, candidate, or cause.
Section 4.1 of Air Force Instruction 51-902, referring to the above section from DODD 1344.10, says:
4.1. Members who engage in any of the prohibited activities listed in this paragraph and subparagraphs are subject to prosecution under Article 92, UCMJ, in addition to any other applicable provision of the UCMJ or Federal law.
And, a violation of Article 92 "shall be punished as a court-martial may direct."
The Values Voter Summit is put on by FRC Action, a clearly political organization described on its website as the "legislative action arm of the Family Research Council," with one of its stated goals being to "influence elected officials." FRC Action also formally endorses candidates for political offices. There is no question that this is a partisan political event, with the exclusively far right Republican roster of speakers at this year's event including, among others, Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio, and Representatives Michele Bachmann, Jim Bridenstine, Louie Gohmert, and Paul Ryan.
A high-ranking NCO like SMSgt. Monk should obviously know about these DoD and Air Force regulations, as should a retired general like Jerry Boykin. The should know that Todd Starnes's statement at the beginning of the panel saying that Monk was appearing as "a private citizen" was meaningless. And yet SMSgt. Monk, with his Liberty Institute lawyer by his side, appeared at this event in blatant disregard of these very clear regulations, with the two of them keeping up the same lies that Monk had only days before gotten off the hook for.
The FRC and the Liberty Institute certainly don't seem to be trying to "Protect Sergeant Phillip Monk from Air Force Court Martial," as the FRC claimed when it launched its petition. They seem to be trying to get him in more trouble to keep him in the news as their poster boy for their claims that the military is persecuting Christians.
SMSgt. Monk might be off the hook for his false statements about his commanding officer, but now, with his blatant violation of military regulations in appearing at the Values Voter Summit, he really could, and should, be court-martialed.
Here's the video of SMSgt. Monk's regulation-violating appearance at the Values Voter Summit:
Note: It has been pointed out to me in the comments that this letter of counseling will NOT go in the Staff Sergeant's permanent file. I got that from one of the right-wing articles I read about this story and wrongly assumed that that part of the story was true. I should have known better and checked this detail.