SAN ANTONIO—Attorneys for a senior master sergeant at Lackland Air Force Base punished for refusing to affirm same-sex marriage have filed a formal complaint with the military against the airman’s commanding officer alleging Maj. Elisa Valenzuela violated Air Force policy and the airman’s freedom of speech and religious liberties.
In the Aug. 20 letter to Valenzuela, attorney Mike Berry of the Plano-based Liberty Institute called for a meeting to address the grievances of Senior Master Sgt. Phillip Monk, a 19-year veteran. Berry said the fact that Monk was relieved of duty following a disagreement over a matter of conscience is a violation of Air Force and Department of Defense policy. As the only training base for Air Force recruits, Berry said the message sent to trainees at Lackland is chilling. Monk was not willing to “take his lumps” but instead wanted to send a different message.
“He feels a duty to all airman. He doesn’t want this happening again,” Berry said in a phone interview with the TEXAN. “Our rights are not abridged or forfeited due to military service.”
The point of contention between Monk and Valenzuela—same-sex marriage—did not arise until the sergeant began an investigation of another airman charged with making anti-homosexual remarks. In the course of discussing disciplinary options with Valenzuela, a lesbian, Monk was pressed for his opinion on the subject. Valenzuela reportedly became incensed when she realized Monk did not agree with her view on same-sex marriage and he was relieved of duty.
Berry said initial testimony vindicates Monk of wrongdoing and, instead, reveals he became the target of a vendetta by the commander, who meted out punishment for perceived anti-homosexual discrimination.
“By virtue of the fact that she was the commanding officer and held all the cards … she felt at liberty to abuse that position,” Berry told the TEXAN in a conference call with Monk in early August.
Berry contends Monk’s dismissal was due to his Christian convictions, not actionable conduct. He stated in the letter that Valenzuela’s actions were a violation of specific military codes and religious liberty protections under the First Amendment.
Until the dispute, Monk, 38, served as the intermediary between enlisted personnel and the commanding officers at Lackland. His duties required he meet with Valenzuela about pending disciplinary actions against a junior airman who spoke against homosexual marriage while teaching a class. Following an interview with the instructor, Monk concluded the remarks were not intended to insult or provoke but were used to make a point about unity despite differences.
But some airmen complained, sparking the investigation and Monk’s meeting with Valenzuela. In late June Monk suggested his commander use the situation as a learning experience for the unit, teaching about diversity within unity.
Instead, “She took the position that his actions were discriminatory and he should be punished severely,” Monk said.
During the course of the discussion, Monk found himself the center of Valenzuela’s personal inquiry into his views about homosexual marriage and what constitutes discrimination.
“You’re not on the same page as me,” Monk recalled his commander saying. “If you can’t get on the same page as me I’ll find you some place else to be.”
In response to her queries, Monk told her he recognized discrimination when he witnessed it. But his commander became angrier as the discussion progressed, according to Monk. Valenzuela pressed Monk about his views and even implied opposition to homosexual marriage was a violation of Air Force policy.
After she asked him if opposition to same-sex marriage was discriminatory, Monk said he realized his answer could determine the fate of his job.
“I believed I was being coerced to answer in the way she wanted,” Monk said. “As a Christian I could not answer the way she wanted me to.”
Monk told his commander his opinion was grounded in Christian conviction, not any animus toward homosexuals or disrespect to Valenzuela in particular. Not satisfied with his response, Valenzuela relieved him of his duties. On Aug. 9 he received a call informing him he was separated from his unit and his reassignment to the Lackland medic unit was being expedited. Although the reassignment was planned before his confrontation with Valenzuela, Monk was in the midst of a weeks-long process of training his replacement when he was relieved of duty and told to refrain from all contact with his replacement.
He was also told to clear out his office but was barred from doing so while Valenzuela was in hers just down the hall.
“I was made to feel that because I have a deeply held religious view different from hers, I was unworthy of being in her vicinity,” he said.
Monk said he was dumbfounded, adding that his faith and his job as senior master sergeant demand he treat everyone with respect. A self-described introvert, Monk is uncomfortable with the media attention about his situation. But he told his pastor, Steven Branson of Village Parkway Baptist Church, that he couldn’t walk away from the situation for the sake of his family. That would send the wrong message to his sons, ages 12, 14, and 16, he said.
Monk said he also believes he represents countless service men and women who feel they are under scrutiny because of their faith—evidenced by dozens of email messages of support after his case made national news. Berry said he isn’t surprised, noting the majority of U.S. military personnel associate with Judeo-Christian beliefs.
Berry said the timing of Monk’s experience is noteworthy in light of an Aug. 22 report by Judicial Watch indicating Department of Defense training material depicts some conservative organizations as “hate groups” and “extremists.”
“We’re crossing a line. You can now be punished for believing something,” Berry said.
By filing the formal complaint, Monk said he is trying to send a message to all enlistees but he also wants to clear his record. Berry said being relieved of duty, especially a high-ranking post like senior master sergeant, is a mark against his character and clean record.
In the meantime Monk said support has also come from his church, which is making sure Monk and his family have what they need. He said he appreciated Branson accompanying him to a local television station for his appearance on the national morning news show “Fox and Friends.”
Growing up a military brat, Monk said he never lived in the same place more than four years and never felt like he had a church home until now.
“It feels good to know you’re surrounded by people who care about you,” Monk said.
This is not the first time Monk has been involved in controversy at Lackland Air Force Base. In 2012, Staff Sgt. Luis Walker was convicted of the sexual assault of female recruits. Rumors of Walker’s actions had been circulating around the base when commanders told Monk to “get to the bottom of it.”
Monk’s initial interview with one of the first victims led to the investigation of Walker and his ultimate conviction. Monk, a master sergeant at the time, helped facilitate the investigation.