GUEST OP-ED FROM MRFF LEGAL COUNSEL DONALD G. REHKOPF, JR., ESQ.
Rebuttal to the Sept. 29, 2017 Stars and Stripes Op-Ed of Reverend Tommy Vallejos
It is ironic to have to remind Reverend Vallejos of one of the Ten Commandments – not to lie. Yet, in his Opinion letter published on September 29, 2017, he makes at least two false statements. First, no one, to include the Military Religious Freedom Foundation [MRFF], is “persecuting” Chaplain (Captain) Sonny Hernandez for his “personal faith.” Second, the Reverend’s claim that the Air Force did not follow up on MRFF’s complaints against Chaplain Hernandez is likewise demonstrably false – all he had to do was read the September 22nd article in the Stars and Stripes which noted that, “the Air Force is reviewing IG complaints made against Chaplain Hernandez that were referred to the Air Force Inspector General’s office.”
The issues surrounding Chaplain Hernandez are not theological, they are basic constitutional issues as applied to U.S. military members – something that Reverend Vallejos and Chaplain Hernandez either do not or refuse to accept. The Reverend is mistaken in his claims that Chaplain Hernandez is “under attack for [his] personal faith.” Both the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and military law allow and protect anyone’s personal beliefs, whether they be Christian, Muslim, Wiccan, or even no beliefs, and the MRFF has never argued to the contrary.
With respect to Chaplain Hernandez, it is his conduct – not his beliefs – that is at issue. When one dons the uniform of our military, the service member simultaneously sheds a small portion of the First Amendment’s protections, again something that the Reverend and Chaplain Hernandez apparently do not understand. One can believe in whatever religion one wants to in our military or have the freedom to believe in no religion – again, that is not the issue here.
The problem is quite simple. Chaplain (Captain) Hernandez, were he a civilian, could preach, teach or otherwise espouse whatever religious dogma he feels compelled to. But, he is a commissioned officer of the United States. Accepting a military officer’s commission changes one’s legal status from that of a civilian to that of a military officer - an officer who must then take an Oath of Office to “support and defend the Constitution.”
While it may be legal in some States to now smoke marijuana, it remains a crime under the UCMJ. The point here is that military law, formed under Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution is more restrictive than laws affecting civilians. In Sonny Hernandez’s case, and what Reverend Vallejos complains about, Hernandez’s public comments are the problem and it is important to remind people of just what he said: “Christian service members who openly profess and support the rights of Muslims, Buddhists and all other anti-Christian world views to practice their religions . . . are grossly in error and deceived. Christian servicemembers must . . . not support unbelievers to worship their false gods that will lead them to hell,” while identifying himself as an Air Force Chaplain.
As a commissioned officer Chaplain Hernandez has a sworn duty to “support and defend” our (not his) Constitution 24/7. He does not get to pick and choose which sections of the Constitution that he will support or when. It is not for him as a commissioned officer, much less a Chaplain, to denigrate any other religion or service member who does not believe the way he and Reverend Vallejos believe: that includes agnostics, atheists, or whatever. Nor is it Chaplain Hernandez’s decision that he does not have to comply with Air Force Instruction [AFI] 1.1, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of inter alia, one’s religion. That AFI also commands Air Force members (to include Chaplain Hernandez) to maintain “respect for others regardless of race, color, religion, gender” etc.
What Chaplain Hernandez advocates is proselytizing his beliefs – something that both the First Amendment in the military context and AFI 1-1, prohibit. His choice is simple – if he does not agree with the restrictions that the Constitution and military law place on him, he can resign his commission and give up his military legal status; or, he can comply with the law as every Airman, officer or enlisted member is obligated to do.
Mr. Rehkopf served as a military lawyer for over 28 years on both active duty and as a reserve Individual Mobilization Augmentee. His civilian practice concentrates in military law matters and he represents the MRFF in the matters pertaining to the DoD/USAF investigations of USAF Chaplain (Captain) Sonny Hernandez.