Free to Believe

Senior Master Sergeant Phillip Monk

Lackland Air Force Base: San Antonio, Texas

After 19 years of spotless service, Senior Master Sergeant Phillip Monk was relieved of his duties for not validating his commander's position regarding homosexuality. In the summer of 2013, Monk was brought into an internal dispute over a training class at Lackland Air Force Base. Monk's superior, Major Elisa Valenzuela (who identifies as homosexual) was angered that a trainer had suggested same-sex marriage was a divisive issue, one that could have devastating effects on America. 

When Valenzuela caught wind of the comments, she solicited Monk's advice on how to punish the trainer. Monk suggested that they use the moment as an opportunity to teach tolerance for all opinions—a response that infuriated Valenzuela, who demanded to know Monk's stance on marriage (after first warning him that supporting homosexual marriage was official military policy).  He decline to answer, explaining to her that if he did, there would surely be consequences.  After 19 years of spotless military service, Monk was relieved of his duties.  In an interview with Fox News's Todd Starnes, Monk was almost speechless.  "I was essentially fired for not validating my commander's position [regarding] homosexuality," he said. 

With just one year left to retirement, Monk thought about accepting the penalty and moving on. But at a Bible study with his sons, he felt convicted to fight for truth.  "They are looking at me," he told Starnes about his kids; and he wanted his boys to see "a man who stands for integrity."  After making the decision, it became painfully obvious that Monk's stand would be a difficult one.  At what was supposed to be a routine meeting with his Liberty Institute attorneys, Air Force representatives shocked everyone by reading Monk his Miranda rights and informing him that he was now the subject of a criminal investigation.  They claimed Monk had made "false public statements" to Fox News—specifically that he claimed he was being targeted because of his Christian beliefs.  As Family Research Council (FRC) attorney Ken Klukowski pointed out, telling one's personal story to the media is not "an official public statement." "I was stunned," Monk said.  "[I] immediately felt that this was retaliation against me for coming forward with my religious discrimination complaint."

Pastor Steve Branson, whose church is in the shadow of the Lackland Air Force base, indicated that his congregation was ground zero in the fight for religious liberty in the military and that Monk was just one of dozens under threat.  On FRC's September 17, 2013 Washington Watch radio show, Pastor Branson said he was stunned by the number of airmen who took him aside and asked for prayer.  At an informal meeting at the church, Pastor Branson said 80 airmen got together to share their concerns and find encouragement in numbers.  "[T]hey concurred with what Sgt. Monk was saying, that there are a lot of difficulties at Lackland—that it's making life very miserable for them and for the cohesiveness of the Air Force at the base here in San Antonio... I've got several training instructors in the church, and they're getting Mirandas twice a month on average is what they are telling me.  They're getting to the point where they're getting afraid to do anything... I've got guys in my church that have been serving a long time, that love the military.  They're the perfect kind of people you want in the military, and they are looking at how are they going to get out.  I'm getting emails from everywhere." 

When FRC President Tony Perkins asked Pastor Branson if he were surprised by the outpouring, he said he had no idea there was this much turmoil over faith in the Air Force.  "It's time for people in America to wake up," he warned.  "Things are happening and if we're not careful, we'll wake up one day and have lost a lot of things we have treasured for many years."  (To hear the whole interview, click here.) 

In February 2014, almost a year after the initial controversy, the Pentagon that threatened to court martial Monk was offering him military honors.  The Meritorious Service Medal, which was authorized by the President for "outstanding service to the United States," seemed to be a gesture of goodwill from the Air Force in the hopes that the controversy over Monk's religious beliefs would go away.  Among other things, Monk's award recognized his vigilance and mindfulness in management—as well as his oversight of the largest sexual assault case in Basic Military Training history.  While the honor was well deserved, it failed to address the underlying problem, a brazen attack on Monk's free speech rights. 

In a January 2015 ceremony, after 20 years of service, the airman finally closed the book on his distinguished career in the U.S. military.  FRC's Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin retired Sgt. Monk, and thanked him for his sacrifices in defense of this nation—and its freedom.  "The greatest shortage we have in America is courage," General Boykin said.  "But the kind of courage that Phillip Monk showed... is the kind of courage of our founding fathers." 

Photo credit: Courtesy of First Liberty Institute

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