A member of the Utah Air Force National Guard (UTANG) does not have a religious freedom right to engage in insubordination, a federal court ruled yesterday.
Tech. Sgt. Layne Wilson had filed claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the First and Fifth Amendments, the Administrative Procedure Act and the Privacy Act, arguing that his superiors had violated his rights by reprimanding him after he sent an email to a superior officer objecting to a same-sex wedding ceremony held at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Wilson, a Mormon, read an article about the ceremony taking place at West Point’s chapel and got so worked up that he decided to email the Academy’s Commandant of Cadets to protest it.
“This is wrong on so many levels,” Wilson wrote. “If they wanted to get married in a hotel that is one thing. Our base chapels are a place of worship and this is a mockery to God and our military core values. I have proudly served 27 years and this is a slap in the face to us who have put our lives on the line for this country. I hope sir that you will take appropriate action so this does not happen again.”
Not surprisingly, the commandant didn’t appreciate Wilson’s missive. He forwarded the email directly to Wilson’s UTANG superiors, writing, “I am not sure why he wrote me – maybe he thinks I care about his opinion (which I don’t), or that I am responsible for the policy (which I am not), or that I control the facility (which I don’t), but in any event I believe he may have some problems with the lifting of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and thought that you or his immediate commander might want to further investigate.”
Wilson indeed objected to the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, something he readily admitted in a meeting with his supervisor, Lt. Colonel Kevin Tobias. At the time, Tobias urged him to consider retirement: Wilson had already served for 27 years, and could have retired with a comfortable pension.
Wilson refused. In response, Tobias issued a formal Letter of Reprimand and rescinded Wilson’s six-year contract; Wilson signed a one-year contact in its place. UTANG eventually reversed that decision, but that didn’t satisfy him.
On his personal Facebook page, Wilson wrote, “I only want to say one thing to you Kevin Tobias!!! Sir!!! You are way out of line!!! You embarrass me, our country, and our unit!!! I have done nothing but try to support our constitution and our religious freedoms.”
But Tobias didn’t reprimand Wilson for his views on same-sex marriage: He reprimanded him because he had repeatedly abused his government email. A mere two months before his angry note to USMA, Wilson had been counseled for sending “abusive and threatening” emails to TriCare representatives. (TriCare insures active-duty servicemembers and their immediate families.)
Wilson’s Facebook post earned him a second Letter of Reprimand, this time for “fail[ing] to render the proper respect to a commissioned officer.”
To Wilson and his attorney, however, the letters were evidence of an anti-Christian witch hunt. In 2013 they filed suit against Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, Lt. General Stanley E. Clarke, Brigadier General Jefferson Burton and Tobias.
But yesterday, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia didn’t have kind words for Wilson’s arguments.
“The court has done its best to untangle Plaintiff’s inartful pleadings and briefs,” it wrote, and found that Wilson’s emails did not merit First Amendment protection. It also rejected his RFRA claim. Wilson, it noted, did not argue that his faith “requires him to publicly voice his dissent about homosexuality or same-sex marriage.” Therefore, the military’s restrictions on his speech did not violate his religious freedom rights.
It’s a blow for Wilson – and his supporters in the Religious Right. The Family Research Council included his tale of woe in a flawed 2014 report on Christian persecution in the military; Americans United debunked that report months later.
That’s typical. The Religious Right frequently presents stories that purportedly prove that Christian servicemembers are persecuted for their beliefs. But these stories are usually proven to be baseless.
Perhaps Wilson requires a remedial lesson in the military’s “core values.” The military does not exist to endorse Christianity or to restrict the civil rights of LGBT people. Its principal concern is national security. It has a rational interest in enforcing unit cohesion, and Wilson’s actions impeded that goal. He has no one to blame but himself for his situation.